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Tyson Foods is embracing a four-day week at three of the meat giant’s US plants as the company seeks to address industry-wide labour shortages and boost automation.

Pilot projects testing a four-day working week started at Tyson Foods’ North Little Rock facility in Arkansas “late” last year, followed by its New Holland, Pennsylvania plant “early” in 2022 and the Broken Bow site in Oklahoma in January, the publicly-listed beef, pork and chicken processor confirmed.

The Jimmy Dean and Hillshire Farm brand owner operates 241 plants in the US, some of them shared across the meat categories and prepared foods. As of October, the company employed around 137,000 staff.

“We have received positive feedback about this pilot programme from our team members. We strive to be the most sought-after place to work and ensure team members have the tools and resources they need to be successful,” Tyson Foods said in a statement provided to Just Food.

Last December, the Arkansas-headquartered business revealed it planned to plough US$1.3bn into automation over a three-year period through its 2024 financial year and invest in upskilling the company’s workforce. At the time, Tyson Foods said the labour requirement would be reduced by 3,150 over the course of the programme.

Tyson Foods declined to confirm if the shorter working week will result in changes to wages or hours worked. Nor would the company clarify how long the pilot projects will last and the likelihood of a rollout to other plants.

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“The flexible schedule pilot, in addition to recent investments in automation, has helped address labour challenges while boosting productivity and operational efficiencies,” Tyson Foods added. “While we prefer not to share specifics of the schedule, being able to invest in our team members and show our appreciation for their work every day is important to us.”

The US has faced labour shortages through the pandemic and post the depths of Covid 19, with food manufacturers having difficulty in filling positions to cater to increased demand. Absenteeism through coronavirus illness was also a factor, while some workers retired early or took advantage of government unemployment packages. Tyson Foods was forced to temporarily shut down or pause production at a host of plants during the height of the coronavirus outbreak due to positive cases of the virus.

In its annual report for the year to 2 October, Tyson Foods noted: “Labour shortages and increased turnover rates within our team members have led to, and could in the future lead to, increased costs, such as increased overtime to meet demand and increased wage rates to attract and retain employees and could negatively affect our ability to efficiently operate our production facilities or otherwise operate at full capacity.

“An overall or prolonged labour shortage, lack of skilled labour, increased turnover or labour inflation could have a material adverse impact on our operations, results of operations, liquidity or cash flows.”

For that year, the company reported sales of $47.05bn, an increase of almost 9% from the previous 12 months. Operating income rose 46% to $4.4bn, while net income was up 47.8% at $3.06bn.

Tyson Foods is due to report its third-quarter results on 8 August. In the first half to 2 April, sales amounted to $26.05bn, up 19.7%. Operating profit climbed 83% to $2.6bn, while net come rose to $1.96bn from $949m.

Just Food analysis: Can’t get the staff – the food industry’s labour pains