On Chicken's Front Line
Machines and Workers Labor to Meet Rising Demand
By Lena H. Sun and Gabriel Escobar
In a chicken plant, all tasks are calibrated to the second, and each worker, in effect, is a part of the machine. Frazier was a great live hanger and an efficient machine in his own right. He could grab a reluctant chicken off a conveyor belt and hoist it overhead at a pace of one bird every two seconds, real talent in a world defined almost exclusively by time and volume. Live hang's first shift runs from 5:48 a.m. to 2:18 p.m. at the Allen Family Foods plant here, and by shift's end, Frazier alone could feed about 10,000 birds into the Delmarva peninsula's $1.6 billion-a-year chicken industry.
Sixty million pounds of chicken are processed every week at a dozen slaughterhouses in Delaware and the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia. Driven by consumer demand for cheap chicken with no bones, production has more than doubled in the last three decades. Companies have added extra shifts, extra processing lines and extra work days as they muster the army of workers that labors round-the-clock in plants not far from the beaches of Rehoboth and Ocean City.
The industry now sets the pace and contours of small towns throughout Delmarva.
The chickens raised and processed there produce more than 750,000 tons of manure a year, making the industry the primary source of pollution reaching key portions of the Chesapeake and coastal bays. At the same time, poultry companies have delivered decent-paying jobs in such quantity that every shift change can be calculated by the pickup in traffic along main roads.
As many as 10,000 people work inside the slaughterhouses. But turnover is high, leading some companies to recruit foreign workers. Latinos now hold about one-third of the chicken jobs, filling spots once held mostly by African Americans, a change that is dramatically altering the region's demographics.
Newcomers and veterans work side by side in a process that begins with live hang and ends with chicken cut, packed and labeled. And while slaughterhouses may differ in some ways, their bottom line is the same: The profit for chicken averages 2.5 to 3.5 cents per pound. That means the amount earned is determined, to a great extent, by the volume and speed of the plant and by how well the workers adjust to both.
Few places are more dangerous than a chicken plant: The U.S. Labor Department says one of every six poultry workers suffers a work-related injury or illness every year. Crowding has even given rise to a special injury, "neighbor cuts," when workers inadvertently cut the person next to them.
Frazier, after two decades in what amounts to the front line of the chicken industry, can trace his career with his scars. Chicken claws have cut so deep and so often that his right forearm is a patchwork of curved lines. The black skin on his knuckles has been rubbed so raw that it has been discolored to permanent pink. Grabbing and lifting chickens has, over time, torn the lining of his wrists, resulting in two operations.
"Look at these scars here," the 41-year-old Frazier, a Pentecostal preacher, said. "They are not going anywhere."
The plants where Frazier has worked are now technological marvels. Where Frazier once ripped a chicken's windpipe with his bare hands, a machine now deftly removes the organs, 16 birds at a clip.
At the same time, plants retain the vestiges, even the same tools, of the back-room butcher. Consumers want processed chicken, boneless and skinless, cut and molded, and technology has found no better alternative to the precision and efficiency of human hands. This places an extraordinary demand on the workers, the repetitive nature of cutting and moving chicken over time taxing hands, wrists, arms and shoulders.
The slaughterhouse challenges the senses. The plant smells like wet feathers. Temperatures range from below freezing--in what is known as the 28-degree-room, where packages await shipping--to 120 degrees by the scalder, which loosens feathers. In the summer, live hang becomes so unbearably hot that chickens can suffocate in less than a minute.
The din is such that yearly hearing tests are necessary. Water from high-pressure hoses soaks the concrete floor. Fat turns surfaces slick. Blood drips from gutted chickens.
For Frazier, every day in live hang ended the same way. He removed his orange overalls, streaked with dirt, feathers and chicken excrement. He took off his gloves, torn by countless claws. Off came the back brace. At home, in Bridgeville, Del., he soaked his hands in hot water, alcohol and salt, hands so sore it hurts to hold the telephone for long. "All the time, the numbness be there."
A career in chicken and a lifetime on the Eastern Shore made him invaluable to the chicken industry but expendable elsewhere--the only jobs he could get when he went looking after surgery were as a part-timer. So he set aside warnings from his doctor and returned to live hang, to the $355.50-a-week job, including a $40 bonus for good attendance. To lifting thousands of birds, 4 1/2 to six pounds each.
He stuck with it until this fall, when new hand troubles forced a third surgery and reassignment to lighter work. All along the way, he relied on faith and the Bible. "There are days I don't feel like working. I say a prayer to God to put me through."
The modern chicken industry was born on Delmarva in 1923. Today the region is the country's fifth-largest poultry producer, selling primarily in the Northeast yet also as far away as Russia and Asia. (Washington area grocers such as Giant and Safeway buy most of their chicken from the South, the top-ranking poultry region, because it's cheaper.)
Tyson Foods owns two plants on Delmarva. Perdue Farms Inc., based in Salisbury, Md., has five processing plants in the area. Less well-known are Mountaire Farms, Allen Family Foods, and Townsends Inc.
Inside the plants the work has been broken down, for peak efficiency, to specific jobs: puller, shoulder cutter, basket stacker. The sole task of a backup killer is to slice the throats of birds the automated blade misses. The jobs require little skill but maximum endurance. A shoulder cutter on a breast deboning line slices a knife into meat and bone 27 times a minute, about 1,600 an hour.
Plants rank themselves based on pounds of chicken produced each week, and conveyor lines are cranked to run at 91 chickens a minute, twice as fast as two decades ago.
"What you're dealing with is cost per pound per man-hour, boiled down to a thousandth of a cent," said Jerry Birl, a business agent for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents six of the peninsula's 12 plants.
The line stops only when equipment breaks, accidents occur or food safety inspectors order a halt. At Perdue's Milford, Del., plant, each minute the line is down costs the company between $50 and $100, according to complex manager Keith Moore.
Line speed is regulated only by the Department of Agriculture, which monitors speed for reasons of food safety, not worker strain. Limits are set to give inspectors time to check birds for disease or contamination.
In 1997, Perdue's Georgetown, Del., plant violated the limit at least 22 times, all but one on the night shift, according to Agriculture Department records. No line speed violations have been documented since, Agriculture officials said.
There is a widely held belief among Latino workers, many of whom work nights because they have less seniority, that the line speeds up then. "You feel it," said Raymond Tames, who has worked day and night shifts.
A Perdue spokeswoman said the line does not run faster at night. She said the company was aware of only one line speed violation in 1997 at its Georgetown plant. Company records show it was the only such violation in the last four years, she said.
The kill line at Frazier's plant runs at 210 birds a minute, faster than the plant as a whole because it feeds three evisceration lines, each running at 70 birds. Workers must grab and hang between 21 to 23 chickens a minute. When workers don't show up, often the case on Mondays, "you have a gap in the line, empty shackles, and then they'll turn it up," Frazier said.
No one regulates line speed in live hang, and Frazier said he has seen supervisors increase it to 215 birds a minute. Mike Pilcher, vice president at Allen, acknowledged the kill line sometimes runs faster when not enough chickens are being taken in for processing. But he said the increase lasts only a few minutes.
Frazier's efficiency--"I do 26 a minute," he said proudly--had its rewards. When the plant was short on help, he often was put at the head of the line to set the pace, sometimes for two hours straight. When that happened, he said, "you have to work a bit harder to try to make the line stay full."
Wear and Tear
When his shift is over, Frazier pulls into the trailer park in Bridgeville. Pictures of Jesus adorn the walls of his home. On weekends, vocation takes him and his wife, Shirley, also a minister, to nursing homes. His daughter Alisa, 24, and her toddler, Tyaisha Renee, share the three-bedroom, comfortably furnished trailer.
Like many of the African American workers who have traditionally filled the chicken plants, Frazier was born on the peninsula. Except for two years doing odd jobs, he has worked in chickens since high school. Frazier's father was a chicken-catcher, corralling live chickens for slaughter. His uncle still works as a catcher. At one point, his mother and two brothers were line workers. For Frazier, the cost of a lifetime in chicken has been high. "The pain is there all the time," he says, resting his hands on his knees.
The hurt started four years ago, before he heard about "repetitive stress" or knew the lining of his wrist bones could rupture from overuse, prompting fluid to leak and cause painful cysts. The nurse at the chicken plant told him not to worry, even as the lump on his right wrist swelled. Finally, a doctor told him he needed surgery to remove a cyst. That was two summers ago.
When he went back to work the first time, he said, he told plant managers that doctors had ordered "light duty." A company official, testifying later at a hearing to determine Frazier's workers compensation benefits, said managers were never informed he needed light duty. Frazier returned to live hang. Over time, his left wrist began to hurt. A second operation was needed, and now he has identical scars. He returned to live hang again in May. "The bills and everything, things got tight," said Shirley Frazier.
Poultry workers earn less than others in manufacturing--and are injured at twice the rate. Fatal injuries, while rare, do occur. In October, a Tyson worker in Berlin, Md., was killed while cleaning a metal vat, known as the chiller, where paddles churn gutted chickens in ice-cold water. The empty chiller was on. Charles Sheppard, 44, fell in. The paddles crushed his head. He died immediately, according to Worcester County, Md., investigators.
Maryland's occupational safety and health office cited Tyson for five violations and fined it $22,400, all of which Tyson is contesting.
Elsewhere in the country, four other Tyson employees and two men catching chickens in Tyson chicken houses have died since April. The spate of deaths prompted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to review the cases. The company, the country's largest chicken producer, welcomes the review, said a Tyson spokesman.
Much more common are afflictions like Frazier's. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that poultry work has the third-highest incidence of cumulative trauma disorder, after meat-packing and auto assembly. The condition is caused mostly by repetitive motion.
Poultry workers are almost three times as likely as employees in private industry to miss a day of regular work because of illness or injury. An OSHA survey released this year found that half of injuries and illnesses suffered by poultry workers were directly attributable to ergonomically related hazards.
Last Monday, OSHA unveiled proposed regulations that would require employers to correct workplace conditions that involve repetitive motion, overexertion or awkward postures. The proposal, opposed for almost eight years by business and some members of Congress, could cover an estimated 27 million workers, including those in chicken.
On Delmarva, about two-thirds of the plants, including the Allen plant where Frazier works, reported illness and injury rates below the industry average, according to partial data provided by all five companies to The Washington Post. The remaining one-third recorded rates considerably higher than the industry average.
Allen, Mountaire Farms and Perdue--which has widely varying rates at its Delmarva plants--credit lower rates to treating minor problems quickly and rotating workers among different jobs to prevent muscle fatigue. At Mountaire's huge plant in Selbyville, the company has also redesigned equipment, for example, moving the live hang line closer to workers to reduce their reach.
At plants with above average injury rates--Perdue's Salisbury plant, Tyson's Temperanceville, Va., plant and Townsends' Millsboro, Del., facility--company officials said the higher rates reflected better reporting, even of minor problems. "We have been extremely honest and above board," said Ben Mackey, corporate safety director at Townsends, which was fined $45,000 in 1992 by the federal OSHA for a series of problems, including failing to record injuries.
All the companies have safety and health programs, and a few are experimenting with special tools, such as pneumatic scissors that reduce strain. But these remedies are costly. Pneumatic shears cost $2,000 a pair and require more upkeep, compared with less than $20 for ordinary scissors.
Labor unions and government agencies monitor the companies' efforts. But only about 40 percent of the processing line workers in Delmarva are represented by a union, and Buddy Mays, president of Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, acknowledged that it is out of touch with the fastest-growing group of chicken workers: Latinos.
Three years ago, as Latinos were about to stage a walkout at Mountaire to protest a firing, the union had no Spanish-speaking shop stewards. After the incident, the union opened an additional office to serve Hispanic workers and hired more Spanish-speakers. Still, "not many people know about the union," said Maria Martinez, a shop steward.
OSHA faces a massive gap between its available resources and its task. In Delaware, for example, OSHA has four inspectors to cover 22,000 workplaces. Against those odds, they conduct about 200 inspections a year.
Inspections take place only when a fatality or serious accident happens, an employee or union signs a formal complaint, or an industry is targeted because of high injury rates. According to records reviewed by The Washington Post, inspections frequently result in a negotiated settlement rather than a citation, with fines substantially reduced based on a plant's previous safety record and pledge to fix problems quickly.
At the Allen plant where Frazier works, Juan Villagomez slipped into an uncovered ice auger two years ago. The auger runs parallel to the floor, and crushes ice with slow-moving blades. The auger slowly crushed his right foot. He tried to pull his leg out, but could not. "I was screaming and looking for something to turn the machine off," said Villagomez, 31. No switch was ever found. Eventually, the machine tore his leg off, freeing Villagomez enough so he drag himself to the plant floor.
No one notified OSHA, which had inspected the plant a month earlier. Despite local media reports about the accident, the federal agency did not learn of it until The Washington Post called two years later as part of this report.
"If somebody would have called me, I probably would have sent somebody there," said Lacey Sutton, director of the Delaware OSHA office.
In recent years, Jim Lewis, an Episcopal priest based in Sussex County, Del., has taken on the industry. Lewis, 64, helped found the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, a coalition of farmers, catchers, line workers, environmentalists, the union and churches.
Their goal is to raise awareness about issues from pollution to pay rates to plant conditions. Lewis favors the dramatic gesture and when he preaches about the industry tosses pieces of chicken to the congregations to get across his point.
People have a responsibility to know where their food comes from, he said, to "never forget what's in front of them, their chicken dinner, and the fingerprints on that chicken."
A Shifting Work Force
After his second surgery, Frazier filed a workers compensation claim seeking medical expenses and lost wages for the seven months he said he was too hurt to work.
The Delaware workers compensation board ruled in June that "the strenuous, repetitive work" caused his injuries. The board awarded Frazier medical expenses and three weeks of total disability benefits, or $711. It agreed with the company's contention that he should have tried harder to find light-duty assignments and said he was not motivated to return to work sooner because he was getting union disability checks.
Back at work, the pain in his wrists continued. He had a third operation in October for "trigger thumb" on his right hand, common when fingers cannot flex or extend because of swollen tendons. He went back to less strenuous work in early November, bagging gizzards, and is pursuing additional disability benefits.
For many others, workers compensation payments are often not an option. Injured workers say it's common for companies to keep them at the plant, paying them to sit in the cafeteria, doing little or no work. The companies say the practice lets workers collect a full day's pay rather than a lower disability check. But lawyers who represent workers say it's cheaper to give full wages for a short while rather than foot long-term medical bills under workers compensation. "Repetitive stress injuries can stretch on for years," said Ed Gill, a Delaware lawyer who handles such cases.
Some injured workers complain the company's medical procedure discourages prompt treatment, especially by a doctor of their choosing. Most companies say they rely on nurses to treat workers initially. Often, the workers receive pain killers, or have their hands bandaged or braced, then are sent back to the line. In Frazier's case, the company doctor who first treated him told him his cysts were most likely unrelated to work, according to the doctor's testimony before the compensation board.
Frazier is hoping to use his disability check to quit chicken and open a restaurant, or better yet, a television repair shop. That work would also be hard on his hands, but "once you're your own boss," he said, "things would be different."
For now, Frazier sees no alternative to plant work. But he hopes to be the last member of his family to make it a career. His daughter Alisa is working at the same plant, in large part because she knows poultry pays best among unskilled jobs. But she says once she saves enough, she will go to college and learn about computers. "I'm planning on coming out of there," she said.
For the poultry industry, Alisa Frazier's is the lost generation. With unemployment at record lows, younger African Americans have more opportunities than their parents, and chicken companies have suffered in the competition.
The worker shortage is "getting a little worse every year," said Pilcher, of Allen Family Foods, which operates Harbeson and two other slaughterhouses.
Plant managers say the first impression of their operations are shocking but not long-lasting. Still, industry executives say they have a hard sell. Strict food safety regulations guarantee, for example, that plants will be cold and wet no matter what.
"The business is what it is," said Chuck Dix, manager of the Townsends Inc. plant in Millsboro.
Many people do make a career out of poultry. Plant newsletters routinely chronicle people who have spent decades on the line. But though many plants have a core of longtime workers, companies may have to replace 20 percent of their employees every few months. "It's what drives plant managers bananas," Pilcher said, "because every day, the company still has the same number of birds that have to be processed."
Companies are constantly devising incentives to attract and hold workers. The companies say they pay a fair wage--about $7.80 an hour after one year. Firms now also award bonuses up to $1,000 for promptness, attendance and referrals. A year ago, Mountaire redesigned its cafeteria, installing 10 televisions so workers can watch their favorite show, "The Price Is Right." In September, the company gave a new $12,000 Mercury Tracer to someone who worked the whole summer.
Even with those enticements, the industry comes up short.
Two companies called a military base in New Jersey to ask whether refugees arriving from Kosovo would like plant jobs. Allen recruits in Puerto Rico. Mountaire relies on labor recruiters in Texas and delivers a free set of housewares to new arrivals, now almost all Latinos.
They are drawn by the wages, low by U.S. standards, but considerable for Mexicans and Guatemalans. A typical worker in Mexico may make $4 a day.
Money is the reason Gerardo Cortes, a short Mexican man with rough hands, walked into a recruiting office in McAllen, Tex., in June and signed up for one of 50 jobs open at Mountaire Farms. It would be his second stint in Delmarva, and Cortes, 42, did not look forward to it.
Experience had taught him some valuable lessons. He believed workers who do not speak English are assigned the nastiest tasks. On his journey from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to the Eastern Shore of Maryland--a 52-hour marathon trip by bus--he prepared as best he could. He memorized important English phrases, written on a small piece of paper, meticulously folded in his wallet:
How long until the break?
I need rubber boots.
This work is too hard.
Metro staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: A changing work force remakes a town
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