- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2001

The Labor Department reported last week that its survey of poultry plants nationwide including one in Maryland and one in Virginia found widespread violations of workers' rights.

Typical violations included not paying overtime and refusing to pay workers hourly wages they earned. None of the 51 plants surveyed completely complied with federal labor laws, the Labor Department says.

The Labor Department refused to identify the Maryland and Virginia plants that were investigated. "We are not releasing the names of the plants that were surveyed because in many cases the investigations continue," says Clint Coleman, Labor Department spokesman.

However, Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue Farms Inc. is accused in a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Delaware of failing to adequately pay workers.

The lawsuit was one of two filed in 1999 against Perdue Farms and competitor Tyson Foods by the companies' employees with the assistance of the Washington-based United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Both suits claim the workers were not paid wages they were owed. The union represents 30 percent of the nation's poultry workers, many of whom are new immigrants.

Tita Cherrier, Perdue Farms spokesman, says, "It's our policy not to comment on pending litigation."

Jill Cashen, spokesman for the union, says the Labor Department's survey demonstrated examples of the union's grievances against poultry plants. "We will certainly use this information and these data as an outreach tool as much as possible," she says.

A United Food and Commercial Workers Union statement says, "Poultry workers perform dangerous, backbreaking and unpleasant work day after day to put food on America's dinner table. Yet the big poultry companies, particularly plants without union protection for workers, break the law and cheat them out of their fair wages."

Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, says the Labor Department's claims involve a dispute with poultry producers about how to interpret federal labor laws.

"The big thing that they are arguing about consists of the fact that our companies generally do not pay employees for coming into the building, putting on their smocks and hairnets and going to their place in line," Mr. Lobb says. "The vast bulk of what they have in there revolves around that issue. The custom and practice in the industry is that the employees' time begins when the work starts. It does not start in the locker room. That's the way we've done it for many years."

The violations of child labor laws claimed by the Labor Department involved teen-agers who lied about their ages to get jobs, he says. "The other things in that report were minor violations." Mr. Lobb says.

The Labor Department noted some improvements since a 1997 survey of poultry plants. Nevertheless, it reported violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The department's first survey in 1997 found fewer than 40 percent of the plants investigated complied with the FLSA, which sets federal minimum wage, overtime pay and child labor standards. Most violations involved failure to properly pay overtime.

The 2000 survey was conducted from February through August and involved investigations of a randomly selected sample of 51 of the 174 plants in the United States. Eleven of the plants also were in the 1997 survey. The 2000 survey again found violations of the FLSA, including failure to pay employees for all hours worked, failure to pay proper overtime and making improper deductions from employees' wages.

Since the 1997 survey, however, there was some improvement in the level of compliance regarding overtime pay for live haul crews, the Labor Department says.

Live haul workers catch chickens in the chicken houses and load them into cages for transportation to the processing plants.

Two plants in the 2000 survey had child labor violations involving hazardous occupations orders or hours-of-work standards for minors.

Under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, contractors who provide farm labor crews must be registered with the Labor Department and must meet standards for paying crew members. The MSPA also sets health and safety standards for employer-provided housing and for vehicles used to transport farm workers.

The survey found that fewer than 20 percent of contractors running live haul crews subject were registered under requirements of the MSPA. However, more than 90 percent of employer-provided housing met safety and health standards, over 80 percent of the crews used safe vehicles to transport workers and 60 percent or more live haul workers were paid all wages owed when due.

Family and Medical Leave Act violations were found in two plants. The law allows covered workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It also requires that group health benefits be maintained during the leave.

The Labor Department says representatives of its Wage and Hour Division would try to compel the plants to comply with the laws.

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