“When workers get hurt in poultry plants, many employers try to just throw them away,” explained Tom Fritzsche a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “Companies assume workers won’t stand up for themselves. We are proud to represent a group of brave workers who want to keep these dangerous conditions from harming even more people.”
Fritzsche’s comment came after SPLC filed a complaint last week with the Labor Department on behalf of nine poultry workers from Wayne Farms’ facility in Jack, Alabama. The complaint alleges the firm violated a slew of OSHA standards---from requiring workers to pay for their own personal protective equipment, failing to provide training, and denying access to bathrooms, to withholding workers’ access to their medical records and falsifying injury reports. The complaint notes that the workers initially brought their concerns to their supervisors, but it did no good. Some of the workers were later fired for raising their safety concerns, and they have filed separate complaints regarding retaliation for exercising their safety rights. Wayne Farms is the nation’s fifth largest poultry production firm. They produce 2.5 billion pounds of poultry annually which is sold under the brand names Wayne Farms, Dutch Quality House, and Platinum Harvest.
This complaint should have particular resonance with OSHA because some of the workers are employed by a temporary staffing agency. It notes that some of the workers are employed by “Employer Solutions Staffing Group II (also known as East Coast Labor Solutions, as Labor Solutions of Alabama, LLC, and as Lane Transportation.)” Last year the agency directed its field staff to pay particular attention to worksites where temp workers are assigned. OSHA chief David Michaels, PhD, MPH said:
"Host employers need to treat temporary workers as they treat existing employees. Temporary staffing agencies and host employers share control over the employee, and are therefore jointly responsible for temp employee's safety and health. It is essential that both employers comply with all relevant OSHA requirements."
The growth of the temporary staffing industry in the U.S. was profiled last year in an investigation by ProPublica’s Michael Grabbel. His series “The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed,” explained how “temporary work has become a mainstay of the economy,” with “almost one-fifth of the total job growth since the recession ended in mid-2009 has been in the temp sector, federal data shows.”
The workers’ complaint indicates that ESSG:
“recruited the workers from Puerto Rico, deducts money from their paychecks, and assumes status as the workers nominal employer, though their working conditions are primarily controlled by Wayne Farms.”
We might learn from OSHA's investigation what percentage of the workforce at this Wayne Farms' facility are supplied by the temp agency.
Employer Solutions Staffing Group (ESSG) boasts the benefit to firms of using outside labor rather than having their own employees:
“What if you never had to secure or pay for workers' comp or have another workers' compensation audit? One of the biggest challenges of workers’ compensation is the ability to maintain competitive rates. ESSG workers’ compensation is based on the principle that it’s better to work together than alone.”
Translation: we pay a low premium for workers’ compensation because we place workers in a range of industries. Some of them may have high injury rates, but those are offset by placements in other industries. Our work comp premium will be lower than your’s and we’ll pass those cost savings onto you.
Why is that? Because the work-related injury rate in the poultry processing industry (based on employer reports to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) is 4.9 per 100 full-time employees (FTEs.) That's pretty steep compared to the rate reported by BLS for the temporary help industry: 1.6 per FTE.
ESSG describes another benefit:
“What if you were able to let your new client know that you are providing employee benefits? Over the years, we have put together an employee benefits plan that provides mini-medical, dental, STD, and life insurance. We have thousands of happy employees using this coverage every day. If you are looking for a way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the staffing companies, this is definitely a win for you.”
I can’t help but note the word “mini.” Some workers at the plant likely have better than the “mini” benefit packages offered by ESSG. They are represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Stores Union, an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
The workers’ complaint notes, however, that those
“who were recruited through ESSG were not permitted by their employer to join RWDSU, which is the collective bargaining representative of other non-supervisory employees at this worksite.”
OSHA has inspected portions of the plant in the last few years, but the violations found and penalties assessed have been modest. With the details of the workers’ written complaint and the involvement of the temporary staffing firm, we’ll see whether the brave workers’ decision to come forward will achieve their goal of keeping the “dangerous conditions from harming even more people.”
P.S. Check out the photos that Wayne Farms uses on its website. Not a worker, or chicken, or even a feather to be seen.
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