Employees at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry operations across the country are being denied pay for the time they spend putting on, taking off and cleaning their protective sanitary gear, a federal lawsuit against the company contends.
Pilgrim’s Pride officials maintain that their employees are paid properly and that the company complies with all federal laws.
Last week, attorneys representing 12 named plaintiffs sent letters to more than 45,000 of the company’s workers, including as many as 1,000 at the Gainesville plant, informing them that they could join the case.
At issue is whether the company’s "line workers" are due overtime pay for spending as much as 30 unpaid minutes per day putting on, taking off and cleaning smocks, aprons, gloves, sleeve covers and other protective gear.
Preyesh K. Maniklal, an Atlanta attorney who is one of several lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said the workers are only paid for time spent "on the line" processing chickens.
"They have to get to work, put on all this gear, then get on the line," Maniklal said. "Because of this line-time standard, they’re not being paid for the time when they put on and take off the gear."
Some of the gear is stored in lockers and must be cleaned in a sink area after a shift, Maniklal said. Workers have to wait in line to clean their gear, he said.
He estimated most line workers at Pilgrim’s Pride make between $8 and $14 an hour. If a jury or court decides they were denied pay, they could be due time and a half pay for missed time dating back to 2005. If the company was found to have willfully violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, workers could be due double time, Maniklal said.
Workers have until Sept. 17 to join the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.
Maniklal said participation might be affected by the large number of "undocumented workers" in the poultry industry. He said employees’ immigration status is not relevant to the case, and that the company is barred from retaliating against participants.
A similar lawsuit against poultry company Tyson had 15 percent participation among its employees. That suit is still pending.
"We hope we can exceed the 15 percent (participation) rate," Maniklal said.
Ray Atkinson, director of corporate communications for Pilgrim’s Pride, said the company does not comment on pending or threatened litigation.
"However, Pilgrim’s Pride seeks to comply with all federal laws concerning employment, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, and federal courts, including the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, have upheld the company’s pay practices," Atkinson said in a statement. "Pilgrim’s Pride believes that we did properly pay our employees, and we intend to show that in the lawsuit."