Perdue sued by chicken catchers Suit claims they are employees, not contract workers

Issue is overtime

September 19, 1998|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A group of so-called chicken catchers who do the dirty work of dragging hundreds of thousands of birds to slaughter each week is suing Perdue Farms Inc. for failing to pay them overtime wages.

The class-action suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in the names of eight longtime catchers from the Eastern Shore, claims the way Perdue pays its chicken gatherers violates the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and Maryland wage laws.

Richard C. Auletta, a Perdue spokesman, said yesterday that because the catchers are hired by independent contractors, they are not company employees.

"We have nothing to do with the way these individuals are compensated," he said.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of initiatives by the Public Justice Center of Baltimore to examine and attempt to improve conditions for workers in the Delmarva poultry industry.

Wearing sweat socks on his arms and long johns on his legs to lTC ward off the claws of his reluctant quarry, Clarence W. Heath of Westover stuffed 40,000 to 80,000 chickens a day into Perdue cages for 14 years. He said he was paid between $1.32 and $1.55 for every thousand birds he caught, and often spent 12 hours a night on the job.

"The pay was good when I started," said Heath, 43. "Fourteen years ago, I was making more money than here in 1998. You hope that things will change, that things will turn around, that somebody will notice these guys do an excellent job of bringing us a product to put on the market."

Heath gathered chickens until July, when he said his crew leader let him go after he had a dispute with another worker.

When Heath began catching chickens, he said, he worked directly for Perdue, turning in his application at the company's processing plant in Salisbury. But Perdue changed that system in 1992, he said, hiring crew leaders as independent contractors.

The suit charges that Perdue changed its system of hiring catchers "in a knowing and intentional scheme" to avoid having to pay overtime. But Auletta said the company was merely following longtime practice at its own plants in Accomac, Va., and Georgetown, Del., and the policies of other poultry companies.

Deborah M. Thompson, senior staff attorney for the Public Justice Center, said Perdue was the only company sued because of its size -- it is Maryland's largest poultry processor, and identifies itself as third largest nationwide. Four other major poultry companies operate on the Shore.

"It is a pervasive practice, but Perdue is an industry leader," Thompson said. The suit seeks three times the amount owed for unpaid overtime under Maryland law, and double the unpaid overtime under federal law.

In addition to the question of who employs the catchers, the case may turn on whether the catching crews are considered agricultural laborers, exempt from the overtime provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court held that chicken catchers were not considered agricultural laborers under the National Labor Relations Act, which governs workers' rights to join unions and bargain over pay.

After that case, the U.S. Department of Labor informally told industry officials that the same definition may apply to the Fair Labor Standards Act, said Richard L. Lobb, a spokesman for the National Broiler Council, a Washington-based trade association.

But Lobb said the industry would fight such a linkage. "These are people who work on a farm collecting agricultural products," he said.

Pub Date: 9/19/98

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