Perdue Farms Inc., the giant Salisbury-based chicken processing company, is seeking to automate the one of the worst jobs in its industry - that of the chicken catcher.
The company said yesterday that it is in the early stages of testing two models of mechanical catchers on the Delmarva Peninsula and hopes to automate its full operation within six years.
"As the owner and operator of the automated systems, it is our intent to create a process that reduces the arduous nature of catching chicken while improving the efficiency and quality of the processing system," said Bob Turley, Perdue's president and chief operating officer.
"Until now we have never seen a viable automated system that could take over the physically demanding job of catching chicken," Turley said. "When we found the right technology, we made the decision to invest in the future by acquiring automated ... machines to make this tough job easier."
Tita Cherrier, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said she doesn't know the cost of the equipment, but, "it will be in the millions."
The action comes three months after a U.S. District judge in Baltimore ruled against Perdue and required the company to pay overtime wages to more than 100 catchers.
The workers filed a class action suit against Perdue in September 1998, claiming that the way the company paid the catchers violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and Maryland wage laws.
The company argued that the catchers were not employees, but outside contractors.
Cherrier, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said the company still questions Judge William M. Nickerson's ruling but has not decided yet if it will appeal the decision.
Although the new equipment will significantly reduce the num- ber of catchers required, she said, the automation is not designed to eliminate the jobs of the approximately 180 catchers used by Perdue.
The company said catchers will be offered other jobs. "They could work in the processing plants or as truck drivers," Cherrier said. "Our intent is for nobody to be without work.
"We will always need catchers," she said, explaining that the typical chicken-catching crew consists of seven to nine people. The automated machines will require just three or four people to operate them.
Although the typical chicken house may contain close to 50,000 birds, some units are too small for the use of automated catchers.
Another advantage of the equipment, Cherrier said, is that it is less stressful for the chickens and results in about 14 percent less bruising during the catching process. Bruised chickens are frequently sold at lower prices and used in pet food.
Perdue processes about 250 million chickens a year in the Delmarva Peninsula.