Chicken production line speeds have been contentious within the poultry industry for years, affecting everything from the amount of meat processed per shift to tensions over workers’ health.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently considering the poultry industry’s petition to waive the line-speed cap of 140 birds per minute, which critics say is already too fast.
Working conditions in poultry plants have led to several investigations and studies, most recently from the Government Accountability Office, which noted that the Department of Labor has struggled to find workers willing to speak about plant conditions out of fear of dismissal or other punishment from their employers.
Three poultry-line workers spoke with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette through a Spanish interpreter, Fernando Garcia, of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center.
All three said they work in the poultry industry out of necessity, and were concerned how faster line speeds — if approved — would affect the workers.
They were paid between $11.40 and $12.75 per hour.
The injury and illness rates at chicken plants have declined to a record low of 4.2 cases per 100 full-time workers per year in 2016, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
This is down from 22.7 cases per year in 1994. But “if workers are afraid to share concerns, OSHA may not be able to identify or address conditions that endanger them,” according to the Government Accountability Office study.
Rosa Corvea, 49, a former Tyson Foods employee, sometimes worked seven days a week at the Berry Street plant in Springdale during her 16 years of employment.
Every day she would sort the cut-up chicken for further processing, trying to keep up with the machines.
She made almost $2 an hour less than the average pay rate for Tyson employees.
“After long days at work our shoulders would hurt, hands would hurt and we’d go to the nurse’s office but they wouldn’t do much,” Corvea said.
“Which is a lot of times why we didn’t go or didn’t report it.”
Before automation replaced some workers at the Berry Street plant, there were enough people on the floor to act as what she called “floaters,” or those who’d step in temporarily so people could use the bathroom.
Before she left in 2016, Corvea said she was one of two people on the line.
If they didn’t go to the bathroom during their 20-minute lunch break, the supervisors told them they could take only 5 minutes or less, Corvea said.
So they would “try not to drink as many liquids,” she said.
Now she’s employed with Northwest Medical Center in Springdale as a custodian, which she said is less stressful than her time at Tyson.
“I don’t think of going back in my whole life to a poultry plant,” Corvea said.
According to Tyson Foods, the company does not tolerate the refusal of requests to use the bathroom, and line speeds are evaluated by engineers.
And when line speeds are increased, it’s based on technology improvements, additional workers or both, Tyson spokesman Derek Burleson, said in an email.
The recently filed USDA petition, if implemented, will not affect processing plants like the one on Berry Street. Tom Super, a National Chicken Council spokesman, said it would affect only evisceration and slaughter speeds.
For 20 years, the National Chicken Council has studied 24 chicken plants that operate at higher line speeds and based the petition on that data.
Tyson Foods has not taken a position on the chicken council’s line-speed petition.
“We would never want to move forward with anything to jeopardize the workforce or processed goods,” Super said.
A George’s Inc. employee — who only called himself Javier — works Monday through Friday and sometimes Saturday at the Spring-dale plant, where fresh chicken is processed.
The possibility of line speeds increasing seemed difficult, Javier said, because “it’s hard to keep up with the speed now.”
One time on the chicken line, the supervisor sped the line up and the workers had to improvise.
“What we would do is take the chicken off the hooks and we wouldn’t throw them on the floor, but we’d put them on the conveyor belt that would go to another department because we couldn’t keep up,” he said.
“We were sending some chicken back, so it wasn’t even benefiting them.”
Increased line speeds also would affect relations among the workers.
When a worker is tired, Javier said, they get slower and frustrated.
“They start blaming the tools and other aspects of the work,” he said.
At privately held George’s, workers get 10 minutes for restroom breaks and a 30-35 minute lunch break.
“Thank God, we have a supervisor that allows us to use the restroom,” Javier said.
Javier said he’s worried what will happen if speeds increase.
A poultry worker named Eva, 51, gutted turkeys at Cargill for seven years.
Eva said she saw several back and hand injuries and complaints on the job.
At the nurse’s office “there’d be a lot of people … It was an eye-opener, because if I knew of how the working conditions would have been inside, I wouldn’t have accepted the job here.”
Now she’s unemployed and relying on a disability program to pay for medical care for her hand tremors.
“Only God knows how we get sick, how we get illnesses,” she said clasping her scarred hands. “I’d like to be able to work, but I’m not getting hired.”
Public comment on the issue was accepted by the USDA for a 60-day period. By Wednesday’s deadline more than 24,000 comments were posted on the USDA’s website.
A common issue is whether chicken plants are already working at speeds above the regulated cap.
Eva from Cargill and Corvea from Tyson both said that when their processing plants were under inspection the lines would slow significantly.
“They have to keep a line at a certain speed, but they go over,” Corvea said.
“They make it faster than what the designated speed is.”