Voices and Choices: Workplace Justice and the Poultry Industry

Voices and Choices: Workplace Justice and the Poultry Industry

Edited bySusan Stevenot Sullivan

Vol. 23, No. 1, 2001 pp. 3-7

In an unprecedented move this past November, the Roman Catholic bishops of the Southern United States released a pastoral statement on workplace justice issues. Voices and Choices studies the poultry industry to highlight the plight of “our brothers and sisters whose work exacts an intolerable personal and community cost.” The project took two years and involved hundreds of people, from poultry processing workers and managers to labor and church officials.

Representing the immigration and language issues affecting the poultry industry, Voices and Choices is published in English and Spanish in the same binding. Endorsed by forty-one bishops from Virginia to Texas, it uses scripture and Catholic social teaching to assess the real price of our heaped plates of fried chicken. It includes statistics as well as stories of the workers (with their names changed) whose lives shape the labor and occupational health issues.

But Voices and Choices is not just about one contemporary industry:

“While this letter will focus on the lack of ‘voices and choices’ for many of our brothers and sisters who work in the poultry industry, we do not mean to single out this one productive business as unique. We use the poultry industry as an example of other businesses, in agriculture and manufacturing, which share the same challenges, whether furniture is being made, produce picked, or livestock raised under contract.”

The personal stories that appear throughout the document are an unusual feature for such a church statement. Worker interviews give voice to those who have no “voice or choice” in their workplace:

Maria Moñtez prays the “Our Father” daily, but she says “Padre Nuestro.” She prays in Spanish, the language of her birthplace. Now a senior citizen, she has lived in the United States for many years, the last five of them as a worker in the poultry processing industry. Senora Moñtez is friendly, but shy. When asked about her work, she says several times that she is glad to be employed, that she doesn’t mind working hard. Later she mentions her pain and disability. Moñtez has numbness in her arms and hands from the motions she repeats hundreds of times during every work shift. The pain often keeps her awake at night and she treats her condition by rubbing her skin with alcohol. She has not seen a doctor because the company insurance has a deductible of several hundred dollars which her wages cannot cover. She has asked to be rotated to other tasks with different motions, but has been told she is too dependable in her job to risk a replacement. “A lot of people are also affected with asthma and pneumonia and eye problems,” she says. “That’s what I see the most. People have to leave the plant because of illness. People get fired if they get hurt.”

Like most workers in poultry processing, Senora Moñtez stands for hours at her place on a production line. Chickens, impaled on hooks hanging from a chain which moves the carcasses around the processing area, pass in front of her at a speed which, in a large part, determines the profitability of the operation. The atmosphere is noisy and damp. The floor is wet and the chickens drip on everything and everyone. The moisture contains many chemicals and biological contaminants. Each room is colder than the last as the temperature of the chickens is cooled from “live” to “packed.” Processing involves killing, gutting, cutting, sorting, weighing, and packaging at an urgent pace. One’s task is performed hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand times, per shift, often with sharp blades.

According to a 1996 study by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the incidence of repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, among poultry processing workers is five times the rate seen in manufacturing in general. According to OSHA, health and safety violations involving a substantial probability of death or serious injury increased more than 150 percent between 1997 and 1998 at one of the leading poultry processing companies. The physical effects of this type of employment can be devastating.

Sara Brown’s injuries are not physical. She speaks passionately of the favoritism and manipulation she has experienced from supervisors at her poultry job for the four years she has worked there. She speaks of inter-minority discrimination and prejudice. She is aware of bathroom breaks denied for an entire shift, of time off given to a chosen few, while her excused absences to be with her hospitalized husband are counted toward her possible firing. She, too, has children to support. She takes great risks in complaining to her supervisor, and knows of no avenue of appeal beyond the whims of those immediately in charge. She works hard, she says, is dependable, and deserves better treatment. “Who,” she asks, “will hear me?”

Now in her mid-forties, Beatrice Johnson has worked in poultry processing for more than twenty-one years.

Page 4

Repetitive motion injuries disabled her, but company doctors told her that her condition was not job-related. Her family doctor disagrees. Ms. Johnson hoped for worker’s compensation. Instead, she was put on sick leave at a fraction of her normal pay. When her sick leave runs out, she will probably be fired, like other workers she knows. She is still disabled, still in pain, still in need of a way to support herself.

In 1997 the DOL found 60 percent of poultry companies surveyed to be in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). More than 51 percent of the plants failed to pay workers for time spent on job-related tasks such as clean-up; more than 30 percent failed to pay for brief breaks during the day, such as restroom use; more than 54 percent deducted money from worker paychecks for protective gear for which the company is required to pay. Employees do not have a “voice” or a “choice” in such policies.

While Voices and Choices–released November 15, 2000–uses the 1997 study, a newly released DOL report shows that 100 percent of the poultry processing plants surveyed in 2000 were in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. (See box on page 7.)

The January, 2001 DOL study states that “investigations of fifty-one randomly-selected poultry processing plants located throughout the U.S. led to agency findings across-the-industry of non-compliance under the FLSA.”

Violations cited by the DOL in the new report included: “employees not paid for all hours worked, including overtime hours, due to undercounting hours worked; employees underpaid due to impermissible deductions made from wages; overtime due plant employees as a result of improperly claimed exempt status; overtime not paid to some live-haul crew members (catchers, loaders, drivers); and record-keeping violations as recorded time was not accurate for in-plant or live-haul workers.”

The DOL study also gives details about the underpayment of subcontracted or “temporary” workers–workers who are rarely, if ever, paid the same wages for doing the same work as employees, but who may represent a substantial number of the workers at the plant. “The potential for minimum wage violations affecting workers employed via temporary help firms in processing plants is significant since these workers generally were paid only slightly more than the Federal minimum wage. The lower rates paid to these temp agency workers leave little room before practices of not paying for all hours actually worked

Page 5

or making deductions from wages” (for items required to be provided to employees such as ear plugs, clothing, and equipment).

Voices and Choices includes the viewpoint of poultry industry senior management as well, people who have voices and make choices about not only their work, but the work of others.

John Stephens is a senior manager with a poultry company who articulates the industry’s point of view. While he grapples with conflicting priorities and difficult decisions, he has the power to influence corporate policy and to make changes. He must watch the profitability of the operation. It is a competitive business and there are a lot of factors to consider. His single biggest problem, Stephens says emphatically, is employee turnover. As soon as people can find another job, they leave. As in the majority of processing plants, most employees are from minority groups. More and more he must rely on immigrants, many with questionable documentation.

Surveys conducted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), show that poultry workers are mostly African American and female, though Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the workforce.

“The poultry industry in the U.S. is not an employment of choice for people,” Mr. Stephens says. “The work is very hard physically and repetitious,” that is “part of the problem.” He has future employees bused in from other areas, oversees company housing that shelters some of them and wonders how he will keep the line functioning with a full complement next week. He knows that training supervisors to treat employees well and training employees to rotate through several jobs to relieve or prevent repetitive motion injuries are keys to the future of the operation. He says he is working on implementing such improvements. “The higher the quality of supervision, the better the work environment. The quality of supervision is a key to turnover and absenteeism. We need to improve the way people are dealt with; the way we take care of their needs is most important.”

Processing is only one part of the poultry industry. Chicken catchers are another group who work an unhealthy, repetitive job for low pay and who face irregularities in their employment. A study of Delmarva chicken catchers shows that average daily compensation has declined since 1985. Additionally, over 60 percent of plants surveyed by the DOL in 1997 failed to pay overtime to chicken-catching crews for hours worked in excess of forty per week.

Poultry Growers Question Contracts

It may not be easy to view fluffy, white chicks as a social justice issue, but growing the chickens is another facet of the industry that provides controversy. Those who raise poultry often find themselves in unfair situations. The contract they sign with a poultry company is written to leave the major decisions in the hands of the company. The grower must spend large sums of money to build, and later update, the facilities where the birds will be raised. In the case of smaller growers, such investments usually call for a mortgage on the family farm. The antibiotics, feed, and other supplies, including the chicks themselves, come from the company. The company weighs the feed and the finished chickens. The company also decides what the grower will be paid per pound of bird, once expenses for supplies are deducted. Unhealthy chicks, illness in the flock, weather problems, waste disposal, and runoff problems are all risks for the grower, not the company. Current contracts are often written to specify arbitration as the only mode of redress, omitting the possibility of class action lawsuits which have been successful for some growers in the past.

Roy and Mary Stein are growers with sixteen years experience. They say that most grower families must send someone to work at another job to generate adequate income for the family. Often the rate of return promised by the company falls short, particularly once the company begins to demand expensive changes or improvements in equipment as a condition of continuing the contract. If the contract is not renewed, the family farm may be foreclosed. Selling a farm without the promise of a similar contract for a potential buyer, is often impossible.

“The only thing you’ve got control of is signing the contract,” says Roy Stein. “They can break it any time they want to. You can’t, but they can.”

“This is contract labor,” adds Mary Stein. “You are not a partner. A partner is supposed to have something to say about your business.” The couple says growers are afraid to speak up, because “everything they own is mortgaged.”

According to the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission, poultry companies gain about 16 percent on their investment, while poultry growers gain about 4 percent. Delmarva poultry growers surveyed in 1997 echoed the concerns of the Steins: 43 percent said they did not trust their company’s feed delivery weights, 41 percent didn’t trust the figures on their pay statements, and 57 percent believed the company would retaliate if they raise concerns.

Voices and Choices also tackles the immigration aspect of the poultry industry, noting that most people in the United States are themselves descendants of immigrants, who also arrived in search of a better life.

Different in look, customs, and language, newcomers are often discriminated against. Such people have faces and futures. One young man sits quietly, his heavily muscled arms folded across his chest. A friend coaxes

Page 6

him to speak, promising that his real name will not be used. Gradually, Julio Lopez relaxes, unfolds his arms and extends a huge, gentle hand. The hand is deformed with scar tissue; its shape distorted. He speaks reluctantly, through a translator, of a poultry-processing injury, which required more than seventy stitches to close. Weeks later, his use of the hand is still impaired. He is told by the medical people available to him that nothing more can be done and that he is not authorized to see a specialist. He has not been compensated for the injury. He is concerned that the disability is permanent, but he will not make a fuss for fear of losing his current job in the processing plant, the job that feeds his family back home. He is desperate to support them, so desperate that he crossed the border into this country illegally. What will happen if he is sent back? Like others who are undocumented, he says it is safer to be silent.

While laws regarding immigration and immigrants are to be respected, what can be done to aid and protect this most vulnerable and exploitable group? Many of these immigrants are fleeing civil conflicts in Latin America in which the United States is a political player. Whatever their country of origin, most are without a voice as they attempt to support themselves and their families by whatever means is available, no matter what the conditions. Their understandable reluctance to seek help from government authorities becomes another factor in the circumstances which many such people must face.

Although Voices and Choices builds upon statistical information throughout, the difficulty of obtaining statistics is overshadowed by the common experiences of workers in the industry facing challenges of earning a living wage, establishing worker rights and human dignity, and dealing with immigration. The stories told by workers are consistent and disturbing, often overwhelming.

Voices and Choices also includes a lengthy treatment of the biblical roots of neighborliness. It cites more than one hundred years of Catholic social teaching concerning such topics as human rights and dignity, the organizing of workers, just wages, appropriate working conditions and solidarity. The bishops’ document does not take a simplistic view of the global economic forces at work. Even so, it says, complexity is not an excuse for lack of awareness or for inaction.

Vertical integration, in which the same company owns and/or controls every step of production from the most basic components, such as feed grain, to the final product, such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts on the grocery store shelves, has become a dominant force in the economy. The ramifications are too numerous to treat here, but according to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, “factory farming” affects prices, wages, natural resources, and the future of family farming, placing enormous power in the boardrooms of a few companies.

The economic forces which shape the work of peoples’ daily lives are intricate and interconnected, extending to matters of environment, use of hormone technology and genetic engineering, foreign policy, global monetary policy, and international imbalances of resources, debt, and wealth.

Structural change and legal protections are essential tasks for government and business entities. “Still,” argues Voices and Choices, “we may not abdicate our concern and responsibility for such matters to the anonymous group. The ‘group’ is made up of individuals. Structural change begins with the conversion of each heart.” While the bishops’ statement stops short of suggesting specific action, it strongly states that all voices in the workplace need to be heard and responsibilities and benefits shared.

From 1987 to 1997, the value of poultry production has doubled; broiler industry operating profits exceeded one billion dollars in 1996. The USDA poultry processing “line speed” limit increased from seventy birds per minute in 1979 to ninety-one per minute by 1999 while average real wages for poultry workers have declined from 1987 to 1997. Poultry work is both the lowest paying and largest employing segment of the entire meat industry.

Having a voice can lead to having a choice about wages, working conditions, job safety, medical care, and other benefits. It is often difficult for workers to achieve this sharing of responsibility with owners and managers, which is why, for decades, the Catholic Church has supported the right of individuals to associate in groups organized to see that voices and choices become a reality.

Because of the high turnover, vulnerable status, and

Page 7

isolation, poultry industry workers are not easy to organize. Once formed there are further obstacles.

One poultry processing plant has had a union since 1996, yet today, there is still no contract to protect the workers. “This struggle has gone on for a long time,” says organizer Juan Sanchez. “People are tired, but they want to be organized. It’s the only way to get the company’s attention when they are abused by supervisors or overburdened with work. They want to protect themselves.”

Voices and Choices ends with the following exhortation and with the signatures of the forty-one bishops: “We love and serve in our daily lives through encounters with others. How might we be advocates for the needs of our brothers and sisters who lack voices and choices? How might we “speak out for those who cannot speak”? (Proverbs 31:8). Let us begin with our own hearts and our own awareness as we journey together through the new millennium. Let us seek to encounter the presence of the divine in every person, and respond accordingly, for “just as you did it to one of the least of these. . . you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

S. Sullivan

Vol. 23, No. 1, 2001 p. 7

Sidebar: Will Bush’s DOL Enforce Wage and Hour Laws?

A statement of concern was presented to U.S. Department of Labor administrators in six locations around the country, including Atlanta, on May 24-25, 2001. The “open letter,” organized by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (NICWJ), asked the new Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, to vigorously enforce Wage and Hour laws designed to protect 250,000 poultry plant workers and to hold poultry industry accountable for violations of labor law.

Chao has met with representatives of the poultry industry and received a letter from sixteen U.S. Senators reportedly asking her to reduce enforcement and industry accountability. NICWJ was unable to arrange a meeting with the secretary.

In Atlanta, ten representatives of religious and labor groups, spearheaded by the Georgia Poultry Justice alliance, met with Alfred “Hap” Perry, Southeast Regional Administrator, and Joe Villarreal, Southwest Regional Administrator, of the DOL Wage and Hour Division. The group presented Perry and Villarreal with a copy of the NICWJ letter, signed by 150 leaders of justice and religious organizations, and with copies of Voices and Choices, the poultry justice pastoral document form the Catholic Bishops of the South.

Perry cited a 2000 DOL study, released in January, 2001, stating that all fifty-one of the poultry processing plants investigated were in violation of Wage and Hour laws. A previous DOL study, in 1997, showed only 40 percent of the plants to be in compliance.

“I don’t think the industry changed (between the 1997 investigation and the 2000 investigation),” Perry said. “I think we did a better job with the 2000 study. The industry has been doing the same things for twenty years.” One of the “things” includes requiring workers to “don and doff” required protective clothing without any pay, resulting in about an hour of unpaid work per shift.

Response by the DOL to such studies can include “doing nothing” or filing lawsuits against the companies and/or assessing penalties against the companies, Perry said. He prefers the education option, when feasible, which makes employers and employees aware of labor laws.

Perry said his office is preparing a response to the poultry industry’s position. “I have a personal interest in this,” he said.

He asked those presenting the NICWJ statement to help the DOL connect with poultry workers, offering to make DOL representatives available for educational presentations as often as weekly to workers in the poultry industry.

–S. Sullivan

This essay was excerpted and adapted from Voices and Choices and edited by Susan Stevenot Sullivan, a member of the team that developed the pastoral statement. Sullivan is a writer, editor, and photographer based in the Atlanta area. Voices and Choices is available in printed form from St. Anthony Messenger Press (1-800-488-0488) or on the web at: www.americancatholic.org/News/PoultryPastoral/default.asp.