Poultry giant Perdue Farms Inc. has agreed to pay $1.7 million in back overtime wages to settle a federal lawsuit brought by workers with the difficult job of catching chickens for processing plants on the Delmarva Peninsula.
The settlement, expected to be jointly announced today by Perdue and lawyers for the workers, follows a federal judge's ruling that the company based in Salisbury had willfully violated labor laws by denying overtime pay to the so-called chicken catchers.
Under the settlement, 100 workers who joined the class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore will receive double the overtime they were owed for the period between September 1995 and May last year, when Perdue began paying overtime wages to its chicken catchers.
Deborah Thompson Eisenberg, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, called the legal agreement yesterday a "wonderful victory for the poultry industry and for its workers." The lawsuit was one of several initiatives by the center to try to improve working conditions in the region's poultry industry.
"The life of a chicken catcher today is worlds apart from what it was when we filed this lawsuit in 1998," Eisenberg said.
In the lawsuit, workers claimed they routinely worked more than 40 hours a week at the gritty job of gathering birds from crowded, poorly ventilated chicken houses in the region for transport to slaughter plants.
Workers were paid less than $2 per 1,000 birds caught. In a 1998 interview, lead plaintiff Clarence W. Heath said he had caught between 40,000 and 80,000 chickens a day for Perdue for the previous 14 years, often working more than 12 hours a night at the job.
Company officials had argued that they were not responsible for how the catchers were compensated, because they were considered independent contractors.
But U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson rejected that argument in a February 2000 ruling that was crucial to the workers' case. After Nickerson found that the company had improperly denied overtime pay to chicken catchers, Perdue began negotiating a settlement, records show.
Nickerson signed the final consent judgment order Monday.
"Taking an appeal would have prolonged the resolution of the case, and we felt it was in our employees' best interest to settle this case now," Tita Cherrier, a Perdue spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement.
Cherrier noted that many of the workers involved in the lawsuit have been company employees, receiving health and retirement benefits, for about a year now.
Perdue does not acknowledge any liability or wrongdoing in the settlement. The company also said that the settlement is not an admission that the calculations used to figure overtime pay in this case should apply to two other pending federal lawsuits brought against the company by chicken catchers.
Under this settlement, individual workers will collect checks ranging from $915 to $39,611, court records show. The average payment to the 100 workers is $17,213. The claims of two workers involved in the lawsuit have not been settled because of disputes over how much they are owed.
Perdue also agreed in the settlement to pay $612,000 to the workers' lawyers and $9,000 each to two catchers who claimed they were fired from second jobs at the plants for joining the lawsuit.