A U.S. district judge in Baltimore has ruled that Perdue Farms improperly denied overtime wages to more than 100 "catchers" who drag chickens to slaughter on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Judge William M. Nickerson also found that the Salisbury-based company "willfully" violated federal labor law, making the company liable for three years of back overtime pay for each of the workers at Perdue's plants in Salisbury; Accomac, Va.; and Georgetown, Del., who joined the class action suit.
The ruling could cost Perdue more than $1 million in damages and change similar practices elsewhere in the poultry industry.
Four other companies operate on the peninsula, and lawyers are preparing a similar suit on behalf of catchers for another Perdue plant in Milford, Del.
"Hopefully this ruling will send a strong message not only to Perdue but also to other poultry companies that they can't get away with this anymore," said Deborah Thompson, an attorney at Baltimore's Public Justice Center who represented the workers.
Perdue officials would not say whether they planned to appeal.
"We are disappointed with the court decision, but we still feel our positions on -- these issues have merit," said Perdue spokeswoman Tita Cherrier. "We are considering the options available to us. We vehemently deny the accusation that we willfully broke the law."
The catchers filed suit against Perdue in September 1998, claiming that the way Perdue paid the catchers violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and Maryland wage laws.
The company countered that it did not employ the catchers at all, since the workers are hired by independent crew leaders. Even if the catchers were considered employees, Perdue argued, they are exempt from overtime provisions because they could be considered "agricultural laborers."
Nickerson took a dim view of both arguments, finding that Perdue owned nearly all the equipment used in catching chickens, required catchers to conform to company specifications and closely supervised their work.
"Although geographically their work takes place outside the processing plants, the catchers' function, in a real sense, is simply part of the production line," the judge wrote.
He wrote that the poultry industry, including Perdue, has persisted in treating catchers as independent contractors, even though the companies knew that federal regulators considered catchers to be employees subject to overtime rules. "The court concludes that this failure to comply was reckless, at best," he wrote.
Now the question is how much Perdue may have to pay.
A typical catcher works a 60-hour week. A catching crew, usually made up of nine men, gathers between 30,000 and 50,000 chickens from independent farms during a 12-hour shift, then takes them to a plant for processing. A catcher typically makes between $1.32 and $1.55 for every thousand birds he catches.
Thompson said the two sides likely would try to agree on a formula and propose it to the judge.
The catchers are seeking three times the amount owed under Maryland law, and double the unpaid overtime under federal law. She has estimated the amount owed at more than $1 million.