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Tyson Foods Asking SCOTUS to Deny Wages To Its Employees

by Stephanie Mencimer

The company gets sued a lot by its employees. It wants the Supreme Court to make them stop.

AP Photo/Danny Johnston
AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Workers have filed dozens of lawsuits against Tyson Foods alleging millions of dollars in “wage theft” for its failure to keep wage and hour records and to properly pay workers for overtime as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). On Tuesday, Tyson came before the US Supreme Court and argued that the justices should make those lawsuits go away. Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo is truly a David-versus-Goliath lawsuit, with about 3,000 low-income, often immigrant workers going up against the world’s second-largest meat processor, which has more than $30 billion in annual sales.

Tyson has asked the nation’s highest court to throw out a lawsuit that resulted in a $6 million jury verdict against the company in Iowa for cheating its workers out of earned overtime. Tyson doesn’t just want the case thrown out, though. The verdict at issue amounts to peanuts for the multinational corporation—a little more than two hours’ worth of Tyson’s annual profits. The company also wants the court to issue a broad ruling that would effectively immunize it against future class actions for wage and hour theft, and make it much harder for workers everywhere to join together to bring such claims. If it wins this case, Tyson could have it both ways: It could effectively continue to violate the FLSA and escape liability for it in court.
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Tyson is one of three significant legal assaults on class actions before the court this term, waged by big businesses seeking to make it more difficult for workers and consumers to join together to sue them for misconduct. Weighing in on Tyson’s side in the case are other corporate giants, including Wal-Mart, Dow Chemical, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The case hinges on a technical issue over whether plaintiffs in an FLSA case can use statistical averaging to calculate lost wages in the absence of good time records. Workers at the Storm Lake pork processing plant must wear sanitary and safety equipment such as hard hats, belly guards, and earplugs on the processing line and in the slaughterhouse. Putting this equipment on and off takes time, as does walking to the processing line, and that’s time that should be included, by law, in workers’ pay, including overtime.

Instead of simply having workers punch a time clock when they got to work and started donning their gear, for many years the company paid them through a controversial approach known as the “gang system.” Workers were paid for a 40-hour week starting at the exact moment when they got to the processing line and a product arrived at the work station, not when they started putting on their gear.

In 1988, the US Department of Labor sued Tyson over the gang system on the grounds that it violated the FLSA requirement for record-keeping and overtime. After eight years of litigation, in 1996, a federal court issued an injunction against the company for violating the FLSA’s record-keeping provisions by refusing to track the time workers spent donning and doffing gear, and paying them for it.In response, instead of deploying a well-placed time clock that would accurately record how much time workers spent on the job, Tyson conducted an industrial study to come up with an average time workers spent getting ready for work—a unit of time they referred to as “K time”—and it used those averages to pay its workers. In the Iowa plant, “K time” worked out to be about four minutes a shift, plus a couple more for walking to and from the plant. Tyson still didn’t keep records of the actual time workers spent donning their safety gear, and workers continued to sue. (In 2000, the US Department of Labor sued the company again, over the same issues, on behalf of workers in Alabama, and in 2009, a court found the company in violation of the FLSA once again.)

Source: Mother Jones