Sunday, May 18, 2014

SPLC Files Complaint on Behalf of Alabama Poultry Workers

Citing numerous OSHA violations, the Southern Poverty Law Center is urging the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the practices of a Deep South chicken processing plant.

By: James Swift

On one deboning line at the Wayne Farms poultry processing plant in Jack, Ala., an employee is expected to process more than 2,000 chickens over the course of an hour. Every minute, the employee is expected to sever the wings of 40 birds; according to one worker, the plant would sometimes speed the production requirements up to 50 chickens per minute.

Another worker said he was ordered to hang up as many as 40 chickens per minute at the plant. Like many of the deboning line employees, he said the extremely fast pace has led to the development of severe hand, wrist, back and leg injuries.

Other employees at the same station are asked to multitask; they are expected to debone anywhere from a dozen to 20 chickens per minute while simultaneously cutting breast meat or handling tenders. So intense the line speed, one employee said, that the blood vessels under his fingernails burst while trying to keep up with the hectic pace.

“The speed is the underlying issue driving all the other problems,” Tom Fritszche, an SPLC staff attorney and author of the 2013 report “Unsafe at These Speeds: Alabama’s Poultry Industry and Its Disposable Workers,” told Uncommon Journalism.

Allotted three small breaks over an eight hour shift of rigorous labor, Fritzsche said that many workers at the southern Alabama plant are at risk for repetitive motion injuries such as tendinitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. But it’s not just processing line speeds that have drawn the concern of the SPLC; in an official complaint submitted to the United States Department of Labor (DOL) last month, the organization also claims that Wayne Farms has failed to adequately address work site injuries, and even penalized employees for reporting them.

After being fitted with a wrist splint, one plant manager allegedly ordered an employee to remove the device before returning to work. Another claims to have been denied worker’s compensation information after being struck by a table, an incident which the employee said led to the development of a hernia. One employee even experienced a heart attack on the plant floor, with the work site nurse allegedly refusing to call an ambulance. “She had to have her daughter, who also worked at the plant, leave her shift with her to drive to the hospital to get treatment for her heart attack,” Fritzsche said. “And when they both came back to work, they both got points for leaving work early.”

According to the SPLC, Wayne Farms policy may have even been a factor in a former worker’s death. In 2013, one employee, allegedly experiencing severe chest pains, asked to leave his shift early; his request denied, the individual experienced a fatal heart attack later that evening.

“All these issues are fairly egregious, and what makes them egregious is that they’re routine at the plant,” Fritzsche said. “Any type of policy that essentially forces people to keep working until they reach the breaking point rather than giving them a chance to get a diagnosis…it’s just a terrible and unjust policy.”

Allegations of Inadequate Care and Unsafe Working Conditions

Wayne Farms’ attendance policy, Fritzsche said, promotes “profits and production” over worker safety by discouraging employees from seeking medical treatment.

“They give workers a point for every day of work they miss, and they get a half point for arriving late or leaving early,” Fritzsche said. “With very little exception, you get a point, no matter what the reason.”

Even workers who show up after absences with doctor’s excuses, Fritzsche said, are often penalized.

“Once you get 10 points, you’re fired, pretty much automatically,” he said. “This is a deterrent to prevent workers from actually getting the medical treatment they need, and it’s a deterrent to telling the company about your’s essentially retaliation for coming forward about medical problems.”

Furthermore he said the policies may in fact increase the likelihood of acute, or even catastrophic, workplace injuries. Although a nurse is onsite at the plant, Fritzsche said workers reporting injuries are rarely given real diagnoses or treatments, and are frequently told to return to line work.

“The facility workers have said if you go and actually try to see that nurse, you’re going to be told ‘oh, you’re just getting used to the job or oh, you should just take some pain medication, or your hands are just cold. You’re not hurt,’” he said. “Obviously, if you’re doing something that hurts the tendons in your wrist [and] you take an Advil and go back to doing the same thing, just as fast as you were doing it before…that’s not a real solution. It’s just literally something to try and get you through the rest of the shift.”

Additionally, the SPLC complaint alleges numerous other OSHA violations, including workers being deducted pay for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and then being provided with defective supplies. Several plant workers, the complaint alleges, developed infections after being given dirty earplugs.

Concerns about sanitary working conditions were also raised by the SPLC. One worker was said to have developed respiratory problems after breathing in dry ice, while another fell ill after being splashed with water contaminated by raw chicken. Denied emergency bathroom breaks, the complaint states that several employees were even reduced to urinating on themselves while working on the deboning line.

Questionable Recruiting Policies and Barriers to Healthcare?

All of the complainants listed by the SPLC are monolingual Spanish speakers, and many were jointly hired through Employer Solutions Staffing Group II -- an organization also identified in the complaint as East Coast Labor Solutions and Labor Solutions of Alabama, LLC. “They’ve changed their name a few times in the last few years, and the name of the company on workers' checks have changed a few times,” Fritzsche said.

According to the SPLC, the staffing agency recruited workers from Puerto Rico, and in the past, has recruited refugees from places like Burma for plant labor.

“Folks are told ‘you’re going to have great job opportunities if you come over to the mainland United States’ and are promised higher wages and safe conditions, and then people pay for their own travel and show up here, and things aren’t what they were promised,” Fritzsche said. “Even though they are U.S. citizens, once they’re here, they can’t really leave. They just keep working until they reach their breaking point.”

As their nominal employer, the staffing agency then took cuts from their employees’ Wayne Farms paychecks -- most employees, Fritzsche said, ended up making slightly more than eight dollars an hour. Exacerbating workplace hazards, he continued, was that neither Wayne Farms or Employer Solutions Staffing Group II provided the complainants with healthcare insurance plans.

“The workers who were recruited in by the staffing agency are told ‘you have to work here for a full year before you can even buy medical insurance,’” Fritzsche said. “Some of our clients tried to get healthcare though the Affordable Care Act, but if you have a job, you need to show that your employer doesn’t offer healthcare, and the company refused to document that for them.”

While most Wayne Farms employees are eligible for health insurance plans, the complainants hired via the staffing agency were not. “If Wayne Farms recognized them as their direct employees, they would have a way to get health insurance,” Fritzsche said. “But Wayne Farms is playing this pretend game, that this big chunk of employees who show up at the same time as everybody else and does the same job as everybody else, doesn’t really work for us.”

Restitution Sought and the Scope of the Problem

The SPLC has asked OSHA to conduct a full work site investigation at the plant, as well as investigate both their payroll deduction policies and their payroll records over the last three years. Furthermore, the SPLC is seeking restitution for employees who were illegally required to pay for their own medical expenses, “due to the joint employers’ denial of medical treatment and opportunities to purchase medical insurance.”

While his organization and complainants await word from OSHA, Fritzsche said the most important thing poultry plants could do to improve worker safety in the meantime is increase manpower and reduce individual line quotas.

“The single biggest thing they could do is slow down people’s work speeds,” he said. “If a line is going 40 birds a minute, and there’s only two people to get to every chicken, that’s more of a burden on your body than if there were three or four.”

The alleged conditions at the Wayne Farms plant, Fritzsche said, are not atypical among poultry plants in the region. “The SPLC did our own research project where we interviewed over 300 poultry workers all over Alabama, and we’ve also been working with groups in Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina [and] Georgia,” he said. “When you look at the whole picture, what’s happening in the Jack plant is not unusual.”

Even at some Midwestern beef plants, Fritzsche said line speed presents serious problems. “Many of the same companies own operations in both the meat industry and the chicken industry,” he said, “so some of those same types of policies and generally, a very fast-paced approach to production, is a common theme across all those industries.”

The majority of the industry, he said, is nonunion, and even in some of the plants that are organized, workers often have difficulties joining. As Alabama is a “right-to-work” state, Fritzsche said it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for migrant workers like those listed in the SPLC complaint to have been able to unionize at all.

“In fact, at this specific plant in Jack, many of our complainant workers," he concluded, "were told that because they were brought in by this other agency, they can’t join a union.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2014.

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