Poultry plants not compliant with labor laws
May 17, 2001
The chicken you have for dinner may have been packaged at a plant that does not obey the labor laws of the land. The Bush administration needs to see that the laws are enforced.
Last month Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao met with representatives of the U.S. poultry processing plants to discuss the department's ongoing enforcement initiative in that industry. It seems the poultry industry representatives saw a change in administration as an opportunity to challenge the department's interpretation of the law.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor investigated 51 of the 174 poultry processing plants in the country to determine compliance with basic wage and hour laws under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The department found that none of the facilities investigated were in full compliance with federal requirements.
Two thirds of their workers were not paid for all hours worked, as required by law. Employers did not count the hours workers spent putting on special protective equipment and carrying out required sanitation activities. Many plants deducted time spent waiting for equipment to be washed down as another lunch break within the same shift.
At any one time, approximately 250,000 people are working in poultry processing plants and increasingly, many of these workers are Hispanic and immigrants from Mexico. Many undocumented workers fill these positions, and our labor laws are supposed to protect them, regardless of their resident status.
These are not high-wage jobs. So when workers do not get paid for all their work, they and their families suffer. Not getting paid for just one hour per week equals the loss of hundreds of dollars a year -- money that could be used to pay for rent, bills or groceries.
Historically, the Department of Labor has fought to ensure compliance. In beef and pork processing, the department took the industry through two rounds of litigation and refused to endorse a class-action settlement for not adequately protecting labor standards.
The department ought to pursue the enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act in this case, too. Officials should meet with representatives of the Latino and immigrant workers in this industry, just as they have met with representatives of the processing plants.
What's more, Bush needs to show that the promises he made to the Latino community during his campaign were more than political rhetoric. By calling attention to the abuses of the Fair Labor Standards Act and asking for improved enforcement, Bush would be showing the Hispanic community that the administration respects us.
If the administration is serious about its commitment to working families, including Hispanic families, it should tell the poultry industry that it is not above the law.
Maria Echaveste is the former Deputy Chief of Staff for the Clinton White House
and former head of the wage and hour division in the Department of Labor. She can be reached at email@example.com.