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Low-Wage Poultry Workers Receive Support from Religious Community

By: William Bole

September, 2002

     Like most who work in poultry processing, Maria Montez stands for hours
on a production floor that is noisy, cold, and wet with chicken drip. Her
hands are numb from the motions she repeats countless times during her shift,
and the pain keeps her awake at night.
     The voices of Montez and other workers were lifted a year and half ago
in a pastoral letter from 41 southern Catholic bishops, about the region's
poultry industry. The bishops acknowledged that the plight of workers like
Montez did not lend to simple answers, but they called on Catholics and
others to become aware of the problems -- and pray.
     It would seem those prayers have been partially answered.
     For years, religious activists have pushed for better wages and working
conditions for those who work in poultry, which is the lowest paying segment
of the meat industry. More recently, activists have made a special effort to
get the Bush administration to enforce labor laws that they say many
companies are violating.
     Now, the administration seems to have gotten religion, with regard to
this cause. This past spring, the Department of Labor announced that it had
reached a settlement with Perdue Farms Inc., which agreed to pay over $10
million to thousands of poultry workers for time worked but unpaid.
     At the same time, the department filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods,
Inc., the nation's largest poultry processor, for continuing pay practices
that Perdue agreed to forsake.
     The settlement with Perdue was a huge victory for a little-known but
growing movement of religious leaders and lay people who have renewed ties to
the labor movement in recent years. They have made conditions in the poultry
industry a particular object of wrath.
     "We're all excited, but we're also extremely disappointed that Tyson has
decided to fight this out," said Leone Bicchieri, who works for the
Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, but spends
most of his time traveling among poultry workers in the south.
     For its part, Tyson isn't terribly pleased with advocates like
Bicchieri.
     Last year, the food conglomerate slapped subpoenas at the interfaith
committee and some if its local affiliates, demanding that they hand over all
of their documents related to the poultry industry. The committee accused
Tyson of engaging in legal harassment and fought off the action in court.
     Religious activists have also managed, for the time being at least, to
prevail over some powerful allies of the industry in Washington.
     Sixteen U.S. senators from poultry states, including Senate minority
leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, had written a letter to Secretary of Labor
Elaine Chao, asking her to walk away from the dispute over industry
practices. But the department has taken a sharp turn in the other direction.
     The administration is now insisting that the companies pay workers for
time spent putting on and taking off protective clothing and gear, a routine
known as "donning and doffing."
     According to the Department of Labor, the poultry industry owes its
workers about $350 million in back wages. There are approximately 250,000
workers at nearly 200 poultry processing plants nationwide.
     But a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, the trade association
for chicken production and processing companies, cried foul. "We feel that
the government has gone off on the wrong track," Richard Lobb told Our Sunday
Visitor, adding that pay practices targeted by the government are fair as
well as customary in the industry.
     Yet, in its $10 million settlement with the labor department, Perdue
Farms broke ranks and agreed to the new standards, which the administration
says are required by federal wage-and-hour laws. Perdue also agreed to the
back pay for an estimated 25,000 current and former chicken workers, most of
whom, according to the government, earn less than $7 an hour.
     Tyson, however, says it would rather fight than switch. Ed Nicholson,
spokesman for the company at its headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas, did
not return repeated telephone calls asking about the government's lawsuit and
the company's dispute with religious activists.
     But Tyson did issue a statement at the time of the labor department's
announcement in May, defending its pay practices, which are common in the
industry.
     "Donning and doffing is nothing more than putting on clothing, which in
our plants, typically includes a hairnet, earplugs, and a white lab coat. To
put this in perspective, donning and doffing is something most of us do every
day," the company said.
     The government says it takes workers about eight minutes a day to put on
and take off the protective clothing. But many workers complain that they are
required to show up about a half hour early for the preparation, time worked
off the clock, Bicchieri said.
     The government's action only begins to ease the plight of workers like
Maria Montez, whose daily struggles were related by the southern bishops in
their November 2000 pastoral letter. Nonetheless, Scott Wegenast, a policy
analyst with the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, believes justice has been
served.
     "This is a great victory for all workers in low-wage jobs," he said.