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Working Conditions in the Delmarva Poultry Industry

posted on December 15, 2000

Last week Market To Market broadcast a story about the poultry industry operating on the Delmarva Peninsula, a narrow strip of land comprised of the state of Delaware and the eastern counties of Maryland and Virginia. It is the home of a prolific poultry industry.

Six-hundred million broiler chickens are raised and processed on the peninsula, yielding 3 billion pounds of food and providing direct employment for more than 17-thousand people.

Nevertheless, the industry faces significant challenges. An outbreak of pfisteria in Chesapeake Bay several years ago was blamed on Delmarva's 2,500 chicken farms. Last week we examined the sometimes strained relationship between growers who are contracted to produce for processors. This week we look at the claims of a poultry workforce, which contends it is being exploited. John Nichols reports.


Working Conditions in the Delmarva Poultry Industry

Virtually all of Delmarva's chickens, 12-million per week, are caught by hand. It's one of the dirtiest jobs in the poultry business… And every day, workers are exposed to high levels of dust, ammonia and fecal material.

David Marshall is a third generation chicken catcher with nearly 25 years experience.

David Marshall: "It's hard work. Stressful, very stressful. You consume a lot of dust and it's just hard. "

Operating with remarkable efficiency, crews of six-to-eight catchers work in poultry houses stuffed with more than 25,000 birds.

They gather three-to-four panicked birds in each hand and cram them into cages for the trip to the processing plant.

Marshall, who claims to have caught millions of chickens in the past 24 years, says catchers earn about two-dollars-and-50-cents per every 1,000 birds caught.

At that rate, the AFL-CIO estimates a chicken catcher will grab about 2,500 birds, before he'll net enough money on his paycheck to purchase one.

David Marshall: "It's designed to make the poultry company rich and us, just, we're just overhang. We're just that, according to them. We're just that. Doing their job and making them rich."

Marshall catches chickens for Perdue Farms, the nation's third largest poultry company and the dominant producer on Delmarva.

Perdue officials declined to be interviewed by Market To Market… referring us instead, to a trade association called "Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc.," which represents a handful of companies in the region. Bill Satterfield is the Executive Director.

Bill Satterfield: "Some of the catching crews are employees of some of the poultry companies. Some of the catching crews work for an independent contractor, which contracts with the poultry company.

The issue of employee status is important to chicken catchers. For 15 years, Marshall had been an employee of Perdue Farms, with company benefits.

But in 1991, the company reclassified him and other chicken catchers as independent contractors. The workers were stripped of their overtime pay, vacation time and medical benefits. They also lost their pensions and profit-sharing options they once received as employees of Perdue.

Despite a lack of union representation, the catchers sued Perdue and after nine years of working on contract, a federal court ruled the chicken catchers were, in fact, employees of the company.

On the heels of the victory for catchers employed by Perdue, a similar lawsuit was filed on behalf of chicken catchers who work for Tyson Foods, the nation's largest poultry processor.

Reverend Jim Lewis: "We probably have been to court 4 times and we've won all four."

Reverend Jim Lewis is the founder of the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance. A non-profit organization which assisted the chicken catchers with their legal action.

Rev. Jim Lewis: "The catchers are now in a situation where they have been able to organize and have a vote for union in two of the three Perdue plants, they won the right to have a union."

Lewis claims the companies exploit their entire workforce including: farmers who raise the chickens, catchers who corral the birds, and those who labor in processing plants.

According to 1999 Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in poultry processing plants recorded a 50-percent higher injury rate than their counterparts in non-durable goods manufacturing.

This worker, who requested we identify him only as "Wendell" emigrated from Guatemala to work at a Perdue processing plant.

Interpreter: "The accident was on a Tuesday. And I was in the hospital Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and on Monday I was released."

Wendell says he received two days of training when he began his employment with Perdue. He claims to have worked for the company for three months when he was injured at this plant in Georgetown, Delaware.

His arm was caught in a machine and he was severely injured. After being airlifted to Baltimore and spending a week in the hospital, Wendell returned to his apartment.

Interpreter: "He said that he got a call saying that he had to go back in there to do his hours...

John Nichols: "So did they pay him for the all those days you were off? Did they pay you for all those days?"

Wendell: "No."

Wendell says the company suspended him during his hospital stay. Even though he wasn't physically able to return to his assigned job, he claims management at Perdue required him to put in his hours sitting in the nurse's office if he wanted a paycheck.

Bill Satterfield: "I'm not familiar with that case. So, I can't comment about that."

John Nichols: "Okay, but the company won't talk to me and in essence, you're the man"…

Bill Satterfield: "But I'm not "the man" because we don't get involved as a trade association with the individual conditions or circumstances of every employee."

Market To Market contacted Perdue again and asked about the company's safety record.

The company said the Georgetown plant is one of its safest, and has in the past, accumulated millions of worker hours without a day lost to injury.

Perdue officials said privacy laws prohibit them from disclosing specifics about their employees. However they did acknowledge an incident in the Georgetown plant, where an injured employee was suspended for not following safety procedures. Perdue officials claim after the suspension they offered the employee suitable work in order for him to be compensated, and they say he was fully informed of his legal rights.

John Nichols: "Do you know what your legal rights are as an injured worker in the United States?"

Wendell: "To be honest, no."

Reverend Jim Lewis: "We're all touched by this industry on the Eastern Shore..."

Rev. Jim Lewis: "When I see those workers, Latino workers who are hurt, first what comes to my mind, is how courageous they are to speak up. And above all, I feel a bit of anger, that my piece of chicken on my plate, has got to come to me, at this kind of cost. It's a shame and something must be done about it. And it's got to start right where the people are consuming it, the American Public.


For Market To Market, I'm John Nichols.


Tags: agriculture animals chickens industry jobs livestock news poultry