Tyson Foods Workers Awarded Jury Verdict in FLSA Lawsuit

 

           A jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas awarded over $500,000 to a class of meatpacking plant employees on Thursday (3/17/11). The collective action lawsuit sought to recover earned wages and overtime pay for workers at a Tyson Foods, Inc. meat processing facility located in Finney County, Kansas. The workers alleged that they performed several duties throughout their shifts for which they were not paid, such as changing into the required protective work uniforms and safety equipment (work pants and shirts, hard hats, safety boots, hair nets, etc.), and substantial walks to and from the changing area, work areas, and break areas. In awarding a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, the jury found that Tyson Foods, Inc. violated both the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the Kansas Wage Payment Act (“KWPA) by failing to compensate their Finney County employees for all hours worked.

            Owners of these types of facilities have historically been the subjects of litigation under the FLSA and state wage acts when they engage in miserly pay practices, such as trying to save money by not compensating employees for time spent donning and doffing protective gear and the subsequent walks to their workstations. Generally, if an employee performs a task that is primarily for the benefit of the employer, then the employee must be compensated for that time. Also, under the “continuous workday rule”, once an employee has engaged in such a principal activity, the employee’s workday has begun. Therefore, if the donning and doffing of protective gear is substantial enough and considered a principal activity primarily for the benefit of the employer, the workday has begun and the employee’s subsequent walk to their workstation should be considered compensable work time.

18 Tyson Overtime Lawsuit Consolidated

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ordered that pre-trial proceedings in 18 wage and hour lawsuits against Tyson Foods Inc. be consolidated. Tyson workers in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas filed lawsuits for unpaid overtime wages. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tyson-owned IBP, Inc. violated the FLSA by failing to pay workers in South Dakota for the time they spent donning and doffing required sanitary and protective gear and equipment, as well as associated waiting and walking time. 

In September 2007, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals determined that donning and doffing required gear and equipment by Tyson workers constituted work as a matter of law. Still, Tyson chooses to not pay many workers for time spent changing into or out of protective clothing, waiting in lines to retrieve the clothing or perform production work, or walking from the locker rooms to their work stations.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that: “Robert Camp of The Cochran Firm in Birmingham, Ala., who represents more than 1,000 clients in a suit against Tyson, said it could work to the plaintiffs' advantage also to all be heard in one court.”

Tyson Poultry Workers Win Appeal

On September 6, 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that workers at Tyson Foods, Inc.’s poultry processing plant in New Holland, Pennsylvania engaged in work under the FLSA by donning and doffing required sanitary and safety gear.  In the case, De Asencio v. Tyson Foods, Inc. the Third Circuit court relied upon a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision, IBP v. Alvarez, which held that the FLSA required Tyson to pay its meat processing workers for similar donning and doffing work and all related waiting and walking time. 

Yesterday’s ruling by the Third Circuit is an important victory for meat and poultry processing workers. The court held that the worker’s donning and doffing activities constitute work as a matter of law. Tyson and other employers in the meat and poultry processing industry choose not to pay workers for time spent putting on, taking off, and collecting required safety gear and equipment. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Alvarez it is clear that workers must be paid for this kind of donning and doffing. Hopefully, this latest courtroom defeat will finally end Tyson’s steadfast refusal to pay its workers for all hours worked. 

The U.S. Department of Labor should be commended for its work on behalf of the unpaid workers. DOL lawyers involved in the appeal include: Howard M. Radzely, Solicitor of Labor; Steven J. Mandel, Associate Solicitor of Labor; Paul L. Frieden, Counsel for Appellate Litigation. Joanna Hull argued on behalf of the DOL.

Koch Foods Agrees to Pay Unpaid Overtime Wages to Poultry Workers

A poultry plant in Mississippi agreed to pay 174 workers $326,971 after an investigation by the DOL. Koch Foods, the company that owns and operates the plant, did not pay its employees the required overtime premium (time and a half) for all hours worked over 40 in a workweek. The company also neglected to pay some employees drive time for transporting crews to work sites in violation of federal law. Lawsuits and Department of Labor enforcement actions aimed at illegal pay practices in the meat and poultry processing industries are quite common. Typically, these claims relate to the failure to pay for all hours worked by the employees.