Perdue to pay back wages

Poultry producer settles Labor Dept. dispute, will give more than $10 million

May 10, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Perdue Farms Inc., the giant Salisbury-based poultry processing company, agreed yesterday to pay workers more than $10 million in back wages after settling a long-running dispute with the U.S. Labor Department.

Secretary of Labor Elaine I. Chao said the money will go to about 25,000 Perdue workers across the country whom the company refused to pay for the time needed to put on and take off protective clothing and gear needed to perform their jobs.

The settlement is "one of the largest consent judgments in the history" of the department's Wage and Hour Division, Chao said. "This is a very important and, I believe, historic development."

She described the settlement as "a major victory for workers" who will now be paid the full wages to which they are entitled.

At the same time, Chao disclosed that the government had filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods Inc. after no settlement was reached in a similar case.

The government charges that the failure to pay workers for time needed to dress and undress for work is a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Yesterday's actions are likely to be just the first step in a much wider enforcement program. Chao noted that there are 174 poultry processing plants in the United States, employing about 250,000 workers. She said the government's investigation indicates the practice is prevalent throughout the industry.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms, said the settlement was a result of discussions the company initiated with the Labor Department almost three years ago.

"For many years various lawsuits have left this issue unresolved, thus creating confusion in the workplace," Perdue said. "It is always our goal to adhere to the law."

Tyson, based in Springdale, Ark., issued a statement saying that it was in full compliance with all wage and hour laws and is disappointed by the government's decision to file suit.

Tyson said the position taken by the Labor Department is clearly contradicted by three federal court decisions and more than 50 years of industry practice sanctioned by the Department of Labor.

During a conference call with reporters yesterday, Labor Department officials said that at least two courts, one in Texas and one in Delaware, "ruled wrongly" in not requiring payments for dressing time.

The Labor Department said the Perdue settlement provides current and past workers an average of $500 a year. The settlement covers two years.

The government said it took workers about eight minutes a day to put on and take off protective clothing and gear.

Carole Morison, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, a watchdog group based in Pocomoke City, Md., said she was "pleased that Perdue has chosen to do the right thing. It is unfortunate that Tyson chose not to do the right thing."

She said poultry workers welcome the settlement, but she insisted that they are being short-changed by the process. "Our records show that workers were losing a half-hour's pay a day while dressing. That's 2 1/2 hours a week."

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