Politics & Government

Big U.S. poultry processor hit with fines over youth labor

One of the nation’s largest poultry producers has been caught again illegally putting minors to work using grueling, hazardous equipment.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported Tuesday that it found two 17-year-old workers operating an electric knife on the chicken line at House of Raeford’s Teachey, N.C., plant during an investigation by the department’s Wage and Hour Division. Regulators fined the Raeford, N.C.-based poultry giant $12,400 for violating child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards. The fine, while small, is at the higher range of sanctions levied in such cases.

“There is just no excuse for it,” said Carol Runyan, a professor of epidemiology and community and behavioral health at the University of Colorado.

While saying more progress needs to be made to protect underage workers, Runyan and other advocates said they were encouraged by Tuesday’s action, noting the department has been thwarted by an underfunded enforcement system.

More than 80 percent of the nation’s poultry is processed in the South. North Carolina ranks among the nation’s leaders in poultry production, with plants processing more than 700 million chickens each year.

This is not the first time House of Raeford, one of the largest poultry producers in the country, has been caught employing underage workers.

During a 2008 immigration raid of the company’s Greenville, S.C., plant, federal officials found six juveniles, including a 15-year-old, working on the chicken line.

One of those underage workers, Lucero Gayton, said in 2008 that she started working the night shift four months after turning 15.

While most of her former classmates were playing sports and attending dances, Lucero said she was working 10-hour shifts, wielding a sharp knife, cutting muscles from thousands of freshly killed chickens.

Poultry processing is considered one of the most dangerous jobs for teenagers, according to child safety advocates.

Workers are surrounded by dangerous machines and chemicals. They’re often required to make thousands of cutting motions a day with sharp knives that can cause debilitating nerve and muscle problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Because of the hazards, federal and state labor laws prohibit anyone under 18 from working on a poultry processing line.

The federal agency did not release the names of the two underage workers discovered at the Teachey plant, but Richard Blaylock, director of the Raleigh District Office, said that it’s critical for employers to comply with all federal and state regulations “intended to keep our youth safe on the job.”

“This situation is particularly disappointing because the company previously was cited for the same type of violation,” he said.

House of Raeford officials acknowledged hiring underage workers, but they said it was due to “an unfortunate administrative error in 2011.” They said the company is committed to complying with state and federal laws. A corporate compliance officer will regularly review active employee lists to verify employment requirements, they said.

“The company was very cooperative with the Department of Labor in this matter and has put new policies and procedures in place to avoid this oversight in the future,” the company said in a statement.

In a 2008 series on working conditions in the poultry industry, The Charlotte Observer reported that House of Raeford had in recent years been cited for more workplace safety violations than any other U.S. poultry company.

More than 20 former and current workers at House of Raeford plants in Greenville, S.C., West Columbia, S.C., and Raeford, N.C., told the Observer in 2008 that the poultry company frequently hired underage workers. Six supervisors said that top managers allowed the hiring to secure cheap, compliant labor.

Prompted by the Observer series, North Carolina lawmakers doubled the penalties for child-labor law violations. First-time violators would be fined $500 instead of $250, and subsequent violations would draw a $1,000 fine instead of $500. If an underage worker is injured at a business with serious workplace safety violations, state officials can fine the company $14,000, up from $7,000.

In North Carolina, complaints alleging youth employment violations have risen in recent years, along with enforcement activity. The state labor department conducted nearly 390 youth employment investigations in fiscal 2012, an increase of about 15 percent over the previous year.

Nationally, the number of young workers who die on the job has declined in recent years. Still, advocates say, far too many youth get hurt or killed in dangerous jobs.

In 2009, 359 workers under age 24 died from work-related injuries, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-seven of those workers were under 18.

Watchdog groups point to signs that federal enforcement of child labor laws has declined in recent years.

Child labor violations in agriculture decreased from 36 cases in 2009 to 31 cases in 2010, while penalties for child labor violations dropped by almost half, according to Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Labor Department withdrew proposed rules aimed at protecting young workers from dangerous agricultural jobs. The withdrawal was supported by the agriculture industry, which contended that the rules would have hurt family farms.

Several years ago, advocates such as Reid Maki, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, asked federal officials to take a closer look at whether poultry plants were complying with child labor laws.

“I’m actually encouraged they found these young workers in the plant,” said Maki, who is also director of social responsibility and fair labor standards for the National Consumers League. “Because it indicates they are looking there.”