The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought a lawsuit last week in U.S. district court against a Georgia-based poultry company for discriminating against an employee with a work-related injury. The firm, Wayne Farms, is one I’ve written about previously (e.g., here, here, here.) They’re a company identified by OSHA for not only serious safety problems, but for injury care that was seriously “out-of-date and contrary to good medical practice.” In one example, a worker with a repetitive motion injury had been seen at least 94 times at a plant’s nurses station before being referred for appropriate medical care.
The EEOC lawsuit asserts that Wayne Farms failed to provide reasonable accommodation to at least two employees with disabilities which is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One of those workers, Salvadora Roman, developed carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) because of her work at the plant in Decatur, AL. She had been employed for nearly 17 years as a poultry processing worker. The EEOC’s case explains that Roman worked on an assembly line where she cut and deboned chicken parts at a very rapid pace. Eventually she developed severe pain in her hands and wrists and was diagnosed with CTS.
Because of the musculoskeletal disorder, Roman took leaves of absence from time to time to rest her wrists and hands. She provided doctor’s notes for absences and requested job assignments that would not exacerbate her disability. Wayne Farms, however, had a discipline program that assigns “points” for infractions, including absences. Ten absences in a 12 month period and an employee is automatically fired—even if those absences occur because of a work-related injury. That’s what happened to Salvadora Roman. She lost her job after having 10 absences because Wayne Farms would not provide reasonable accommodation. That accommodation could have been, for example, flexibility in their attendance policy or assigning her tasks that didn’t exacerbate her CTS.
The EEOC calls Wayne Farms’ attendance policy one designed to “screen out” individuals with disabilities. It’s a business model that I’d call “chewing up and spitting out”: have production processes that fail to address ergonomic hazards, cause employees to develop disabling musculoskeletal injuries, and fire them when those injuries lead to absences.
The other worker named in the EEOC’s lawsuit is Latonya Hodges who suffers from asthma. Hodges missed work from time to time because of her illness and also requested not to be assigned to areas of the plant which exacerbated her asthma. As was the case with Salvadora Roman, the EEOC asserts that Wayne Farms failed to provide reasonable accommodation for Hodges’ disability.
The Southern Poverty Law Center assisted Roman and Hodges in filing the initial complaint to the EEOC, using the ADA as the basis of their complaint. The agency’s investigation led to the agency’s lawsuit filed last week against Wayne Farms. SPLC, which released in the 2013 the report Unsafe at These Speeds, said they were pleased that their complaint led to EEOC’s action:
“The poultry industry is notorious for firing employees after working them to the point of injury and permanent disability. For far too long, this industry has flouted the law by shamelessly treating its workers as a disposable commodity that can be used up and thrown away once they can no longer endure the grueling work conditions.”
SPLC has become a leading advocate on behalf of poultry workers, most of whom are immigrants and persons of color. In 2014 they assisted workers from Wayne Farms plant in Jack, AL in filing a safety complaint with OSHA. It led to citations against the company and a proposed $102,000 penalty, which the company is contesting.
In June of this year, SPLC assisted a former workers from a Wayne Farms operation in Albertville, AL to file a complaint with OSHA. I won’t be surprised if that investigation finds more of the same: policies designed to “screen out” employees with work-related injuries.