Rural town braces for Tyson plant closure as manufacturing booms elsewhere

Rural town braces for Tyson plant closure as manufacturing booms elsewhere

The meat giant is closing six chicken processing sites in Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas and Virginia, laying off more than 4,600 workers who have long relied on its outsize presence as a local employer.

Tyson plant worker David Handy in front of the poultry processing plant in Noel, Mo.

David Handy has worked for five years at a Tyson poultry plant in rural Noel, Mo., which is scheduled to close in October. Chase Castor for NBC News

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Aug. 27, 2023, 5:00 AM PDT / Updated Aug. 29, 2023, 9:06 AM PDT

By J.J. McCorvey

Earlier this month in Noel, Missouri — population 2,124 — Tyson Foods hosted a job fair for the 1,500 chicken plant workers it plans to lay off in two months.

David Handy, a union steward and pallet jack operator at the site, said he pushed through his Covid-19 symptoms to make the 4 p.m. start time. When he arrived, there was a single employer offering positions that Handy said would’ve required a 60-mile commute.

“Wasn’t nothing for me,” said Handy, who stayed five minutes before returning home and calling out sick for the job he has worked for five years.

The Noel plant, which Tyson acquired from defunct meat processor Hudson Foods in the 1990s, is one of six whose closures the company announced this year as it looks to shore up its business. While inflation has fallen, grocery prices remain high and meat sales have slowed industrywide, contributing to Tyson’s $417 million loss in the last quarter.

The U.S. economy has seen a recent spike in business investment, partly fueled by historic levels of federal spending on domestic manufacturing, including in rural areas. But it’s unclear whether that boom will come fast enough for the more than 4,600 Tyson plant workers being cut in Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas and Virginia this year and next — layoffs that highlight the sometimes risky entanglements between small communities and big industrial employers.

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A worker walks along the highway past the Tyson poultry plant in Noel, Mo.
The Noel plant is one of two in Missouri and six nationwide that Tyson is winding down as it looks to shore up its business. Chase Castor for NBC News

Handy, 40, said he found the Tyson job soon after moving with his family in 2018 from California to Grove, Oklahoma, a town of 6,500 just over the state border. Until now, the company has provided economic stability for his entire household. Handy’s 21-year-old son works at the processing plant as well, and his 17-year-old daughter planned to join them after she graduates from high school next year.

Tyson had even provided an Enterprise rental car for Handy’s 40-minute commute, freeing up his own vehicle for his daughter to drive. Now, on top of the $800 monthly rent he has been paying alone, he’ll be pinching pennies to purchase a second car, ideally by the time the Noel plant closes on Oct. 20.

“This is really financially crushing. Our sole income is from this company,” said Handy, who earns $18 an hour as a member of Local 2008, a chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. After past nonviolent brushes with law enforcement, working a steady job at Tyson has been transformative.

This is really financially crushing. Our sole income is from this company.

DAVID HANDY, PALLET JACK OPERATOR AT TYSON’S NOEL PLANT

“My life has completely changed,” he said; colleagues at the plant “became my friends and family, and I relied on that.”

“Starting over is scary,” he said, “especially with a criminal background. It narrows it down pretty slim.”

A Tyson spokesperson said its “difficult decisions” to close the six poultry plants “are necessary to improve performance and demonstrate our commitment to taking bold actions to improve our business moving forward. At the same time, we continue to invest for the future across communities in the U.S.”

Tyson said it’s encouraging workers at closing plants to apply for other roles internally and is offering relocation assistance to those it rehires. The company has rehired at least 47 employees out of the nearly 1,000 it laid off at the Van Buren, Arkansas, plant it closed in May. And in Noel, Tyson is planning more job events like the one Handy attended, offering chances to meet with one or just a few employers at a time.

The poultry industry has been battered by a global avian flu outbreak and ballooning grain costs, but Tyson has also struggled with its own inefficiencies, said Kristoffer Inton, a Morningstar analyst who covers the company. Those include difficulties balancing how much meat it grows versus buys from other producers.

“The cost of feed went up, but that affected everybody,” said Inton. “You could probably chalk up some of it to stuff that affected the entire industry and some of it to [things] Tyson should have done better.”

Noel, with a population of 2,124, sits in Missouri’s southwest corner.
Noel, with a population of 2,124, sits in Missouri’s southwest corner.Chase Castor for NBC News

As the company works to find its footing, laid-off plant workers’ fortunes might hinge on where they live. In North Little Rock, Arkansas — where Tyson employs 300 people in a community of 65,000 abutting the state capital’s metro area — other big companies such as Amazon and Costco have expanded, drawing young professionals and job opportunities.

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