Blues on the Chicken Line
MORTON, Miss. -- They call it "the chain," a swift steel shackle that shuttles dead chickens down a disassembly line of hangers, skinners, gut-pullers and gizzard-cutters. The chain has been rattling at 90 birds a minute for nine hours when the woman working feverishly beside me crumples onto a pile of drumsticks.
"No more," she whimpers. A foreman with a stopwatch around his neck rushes up. "Come on now," he bellows. "Pump it up!" Down the chain, a worker named Jose yells and waves wildly, like a drowning man. Bathroom trips are discouraged and require approval. But the foreman can't hear because of the din, and Jose is left grimacing and crossing his legs.
Finally, half an hour later, a weary cheer ripples along the line. "The last bird's coming!" someone shouts. Jose sprints toward the bathroom -- and right into the path of a cleanup crew hosing offal into floor drains. Jose slips and then flops onto a sodden bank of fat and skin. "Gotta go," he says, struggling up from the mire. "Gotta go."
While American industry reaps the benefits of a new, high-technology era, it has consigned a large class of workers to a Dickensian time warp, laboring not just for meager wages but also under dehumanized and often dangerous conditions. Automation, which has liberated thousands from backbreaking drudgery, has created for others a new and insidious toil in many high-growth industries: work that is faster than ever before, subject to Orwellian control and electronic surveillance, and reduced to limited tasks that are numbingly repetitive, potentially crippling and stripped of any meaningful skills or the chance to develop them.
Job hazards in such industries often remain rife, in part because many safety rules reflect a bygone era of heavy industry rather than the subtler dangers of today's workplace. Ironically, it is also the public's growing concern for its own health and safety that has helped fuel growth of some of the nation's harshest jobs. Poultry workers, for instance, a labor force that has almost doubled in size since 1980, feed Americans' burgeoning appetite for lean and easy-to-cook meat by trimming away fat, bone and skin -- and succumbing to rates of injury and illness that afflict almost one out of four workers annually.
Other examples include:
There have always been Americans who have sought risky, rough work in exchange for high pay, whether it is erecting skyscrapers or putting out oil-field fires. But many of today's toughest occupations offer little compensation, either in pay or in skills that might allow workers to move to more-rewarding jobs.
In many respects, poultry processing epitomizes the often-unseen harshness of such low-wage work. It is the second-fastest-growing factory job in America since 1980 and now has a work force of 221,000, roughly equal to that of steelworkers. With wages starting as low as $5 an hour, jobs on the poultry line pay less than in any other manufacturing industry, except apparel. Poultry processing also ranks as the nation's 11th most-dangerous industry, with an annual injury and illness incidence rate of 23.2 per 100 full-time workers, almost double that of trades such as coal mining and construction.
Yet for thousands of Americans, the poultry line represents the best -- or only -- employment available. Chicken and turkey plants are large, labor-intensive factories clustered in the rural South, bringing thousands of jobs to small towns that often offer little else except part-time work at or near the minimum wage. The onetime Cotton Belt now belongs to a broad "broiler belt," stretching from Delaware to East Texas and studded with what are, in effect, company towns. The poultry plant is the biggest employer; the odor of dead fowl suffuses the air while feathers litter the streets; shops are filled with workers in sanitary hairnets and aprons; and in some towns plants are ringed by company housing, often trailers, crowded with workers who pay rent through payroll deductions.
"Poultry's a tucked-away industry," says Bob Hall, research director for the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C. But in terms of sales and employment, he adds: "Poultry is bigger than peanuts in Georgia, bigger than tobacco in North Carolina, bigger than cotton in Mississippi and bigger than all crops combined in either Arkansas or Alabama."
Because poultry demand keeps surging and the unpleasant labor and low wages keep turnover high -- exceeding 100% a year at many plants -- poultry companies hire constantly, with few questions asked and no skills required. At a B.C. Rogers Processors Inc. plant in Morton, Miss., the first this reporter visited in search of work, the plant manager, Jerry Duty, barely glanced at an application that listed my university education and Dow Jones & Co. (publisher of this newspaper) as my employer. "It's tough work and will make you sore as hell," he said, offering a job starting the next day at $5.10 an hour. "But it won't kill you -- only the chickens."
Preparation for the job and its dangers also was cursory. Safety training consisted of a personnel officer rattling off a list of the chemicals in the plant and the hazards they might pose. "It's the law; we have to tell you," she said apologetically, moving quickly to a list of plant rules. These included the following message on bathroom trips: "Walking off the line without someone to relieve you is not allowed. This is considered a voluntary quit." At a De Queen, Ark., plant owned by Pilgrim's Pride Corp., where this reporter later worked, unexcused bathroom trips are punishable by a three-day suspension. Information for this story was also gathered from interviews with more than 50 workers at other plants in the South.
After the brief orientation at B.C. Rogers, the other new workers and I were issued our safety and sanitation gear -- white coat, hairnet, rubber gloves, earplugs -- with $4.50, almost an hour's pay, deducted from our first paycheck to pay for these items. On the factory floor -- a noisy, wet expanse of chutes and belts loosely linked by the ubiquitous chain -- a supervisor pointed me to a space along a conveyor belt where workers frantically weighed chicken parts and crammed them into cardboard boxes. "Show him the ropes," he shouted at no one in particular, and no one ever did.
Interviewed later, Jack Rogers, B.C. Rogers's general counsel and son of the company's CEO, said: "You learn on the line how to do the job." Of safety training, he said: "It's always a challenge to create the safest environment you can." Later, in a written statement, the company added it has 13 "specialized safety programs, monthly safety programs" and that workers are trained "up to and exceeding" government standards.
Department names inside poultry plants convey the grisly tasks involved: "scalding," "evisceration," "de-bone," "drip-line," "offal," "foot room," "giblet room." Feathers, blood, viscera and condemned carcasses are sent to malodorous rendering plants to be ground and cooked into animal feed. As workers often joke, "They don't waste anything in a chicken plant -- except the cackle."
Each job carries its own hazards and hardships. By common acclaim, the toughest is held by "live hangers," who hitch incoming birds to shackles at a rate of 25 or more a minute. So strenuous that only a few can do it, live-hanging exposes workers to struggling birds that scratch, peck and defecate all over them.
Though supplied with paper masks, many hangers find them hot and confining and work without them. Some hangers spend breaks in the bathroom, coughing up feathers and dust. Hangers also develop rashes -- known as "chicken itch" -- and swollen eyes from exposure to the live birds, as well as wounds from frequent banging against the shackles. "Them's the limbs of a veteran hanger," says Willie Kimble, holding out slashed arms and hands knobbed with callouses. A 33-year-old who has hung chickens for seven years at plants in Forest, Miss., Mr. Kimble says he sticks to the job because it pays a few dimes an hour more than the wage elsewhere in chicken plants.
After the birds have been stunned with electric current, slaughtered and plucked -- largely by machine -- they are re-hung, dangling headless and upside-down for their journey through the plant. At one station, a worker who calls herself a "butthole cutter" slits open the bird so a "gut-puller" can reach in and yank out the animal's innards. Others lop off limbs, pull skin or separate organs.
Packed tightly and working quickly with knives and scissors, workers often cut themselves and others. Floors that are slick with wash water and chicken bits add to the hazard. And though most tasks at first appear undemanding if unpleasant, they quickly become grueling as the same motion is repeated, at rapid speed, for eight hours or more. Poultry processing ranks third among the nation's industries for cumulative-trauma injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. (Meatpacking is first, and car-body assembly is second.)
"The human body is versatile, it's adaptable, but it has physical limits that poultry processing often exceeds," says Barbara Silverstein, an ergonomics expert at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration who has studied the food industry for a decade.
She says poultry work combines four of "the big five" risk factors for cumulative trauma: rapid and repetitive motion, awkward postures, forceful motions, and no control over the pace of work. (The fifth factor is vibration, caused, for instance, by the power knives used in meatpacking.)
The cold temperatures in many parts of the plants add to the injury risk by numbing extremities, Dr. Silverstein says. Another factor: Over the past 15 years, line speeds in poultry plants have been revved up to a maximum allowable rate of 91 chickens a minute from the high 50s. (Industry and government didn't consider worker safety when ramping up speeds; rather, processors convinced regulators that they could move chickens faster without sacrificing food hygiene.)
Also, because OSHA hasn't yet issued guidelines for limiting cumulative trauma, it is hard for the agency to police companies that may endanger workers. "Japan has addressed these issues since the 1960s -- even Brazil has an ergonomic standard -- but not the U.S.," says Dr. Silverstein. The agency hopes to issue proposed standards soon.
In this respect, poultry processing reflects the way safety regulations in general have lagged behind changes in the economy. OSHA rules that apply broadly to all industries -- guarding, for instance, against high noise levels and exposed machinery -- are largely tailored to dwindling work venues such as mines and steel mills, rather than to the growing number of jobs in new industries and offices that pose different hazards.
Even so, OSHA has frequently fined poultry companies, sometimes for safety breaches that echo Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." In 1991, 25 workers burned to death in a North Carolina chicken plant with locked fire exits and no sprinkler system. A Pennsylvania plant was fined for dangerous levels of "chicken feathers and feces" that put workers at risk of "deposits in the eyes, ears and respiratory tract." In Mississippi this year, OSHA fined a company for an exposed drive shaft that caused the amputation of a worker's legs, as well as for failing to provide safety goggles and gloves, and leaving toxic chemicals unlabeled.
Clyde Payne, the OSHA administrator for Mississippi, says many other violations may never come to light because the agency is thinly spread and relies almost entirely on complaints from workers. "In most poultry plants, you've got a low-wage and often undereducated rural work force that may not know its rights, or that's too afraid to act on them," he says.
In the cut-up department at B.C. Rogers, the workers I joined lifted 5-pound boxes of frying parts at the rate of 12 boxes or more a minute and stuffed them into larger boxes that we then hoisted awkwardly onto another conveyor. This meant we were lifting roughly 3,600 pounds an hour, for at least eight hours.
The work often was so fast-paced that it took on a zany chaos, with arms and boxes and poultry flying in every direction. At break times I would find fat globules and blood speckling my glasses, bits of chicken caught in my collar, water and slime soaking my feet and ankles and nicks covering my wrists. One woman working beside me wrapped her forearms in plastic tape because bits of chicken had gotten into her wounds and caused infections.
The speed and pressure of the line also isn't conducive to food hygiene. Chicken pieces often piled up into hillocks that eased off the conveyor belt and onto the floor. Though there are strict rules about the collection of such chicken, most workers I observed were too exhausted and apathetic to abide by them and simply scooped meat off the floor and back onto the conveyor belt. "Just make sure the USDA doesn't see you," a co-worker explained, nodding at the government inspectors scattered through the plant.
In fact, while foremen circulate, joining in the work or urging employees to speed up, the labor is effectively self-supervising. As in many factories, the conveyor belt sets the pace and anyone who flags creates more work for those farther down the line. So workers tend to vent their fatigue and frustration on each other, shouting at colleagues to do a better job.
"Someone's putting thighs in the leg boxes!" rang the refrain of a self-appointed coxswain near me at B.C. Rogers. "And I'm going to kick some butt if people don't close those boxes tight!"
There was no chance to sit down or step away from the line except during short breaks usually spent crowding into the bathroom and running to buy a soda or snack in a windowless "break room" just off the factory floor. Though most workers quickly become smeared with chicken grime and are greeted in the bathroom by signs admonishing them to "sanitize" before exiting, soap dispensers at the B.C. Rogers plant were usually empty, toilets overflowed, and drains were clogged with cigarette butts.
Asked for comment, Mr. Rogers, the company counsel, said bathrooms are cleaned regularly. But he added: "If you go in the bathroom after 50 other people, it's not going to be that clean. There should be soap, but it can run out." In a statement, the company later said bathrooms are cleaned at least five times a day.
Regarding the risk of cumulative trauma, the company says that it has ergonomics teams evaluating each job in the plant, and that engineering changes have contributed to "a significant decrease" in such injuries. As for chicken parts tossed back on the line after falling on the floor, the company said USDA and company policy requires that the chicken be gathered and re-washed by specified workers.
At the Pilgrim's Pride plant in De Queen, Ark., conditions were more sanitary but breaks were briefer. My first shift in "chill-pack," boxing frozen chicken parts, ran from 4:15 p.m. to 3:05 a.m. and co-workers said they sometimes work until dawn. Night shifts often don't end until all slaughtered birds have been processed. Thus, workers never know when they will get off, and can't pace themselves.
There was only a five-minute break during the last 5 1/2 hours, and many workers appeared to be sleepwalking through the latter part of their shift. It is at such times, safety experts say, that exhausted workers are most prone to injury. That would be "a concern if it happened quite a bit," Cliff Butler, Pilgrim's chief financial officer, says of the long shift. "But I don't think it happens habitually."
Like the work itself, thoughts tend to become numbingly repetitive. Asked how he got through the night, Bernie Garcia, a co-worker in De Queen, nodded at the endless stream of frozen chicken passing before us, stamped with the company's name and a Puritan's silhouette. "I think about pilgrims for a while," he said. "Then I think about pride. Then I think about how long it is to the next break."
Other workers, asked about their thoughts, almost invariably gave one of three responses: "sex," "making more money" and "getting out of this place." But chances for realizing the latter two are, in the words of one co-worker, "total fantasy, just like the sex." At the De Queen plant, for instance, wages start at $5.80 an hour, but top out for almost all line-workers at $6.60 an hour after three months. Only a handful rise to the better-paying supervisory ranks. (A Fortune 500 company, Pilgrim's Pride reported record net income of $31.1 million for the fiscal year ended Oct. 1, on record sales of $922.6 million. Its relatively low profit margins are in line with others in this industry.)
Workers also have little chance to develop skills that might help them move up or out. Though unskilled jobs are hardly new, the trend toward dead-end labor has accelerated in some 1990s work venues as tasks become more automated and compartmentalized. Workers on "the knife line" at most chicken plants, for instance, aren't even allowed to sharpen their own knives; this task, ostensibly for safety reasons, is given over to workers whose sole job is honing blades.
In the chill-pack department at Pilgrim's Pride, a seven-year veteran named Larry Sirmon said by way of introduction: "Here's all I know and all you need to. Breasts go 28 to a box, drumsticks go 24, and wings go 20. And make sure the numbers stenciled on the box are facing forward when you shove the box down the conveyor belt."
Before coming here, the 48-year-old Mr. Sirmon worked in an Idaho silver mine, earning twice what he does at Pilgrim's Pride. But the mine closed and Mr. Sirmon returned to his native De Queen and has been packing poultry ever since. "I reckon they'll take me out of here in a box, same as these chickens," he said, stacking 28 packs of skinless breast fillets and sliding the filled box, numbers forward, to the next person along the line.
Mr. Butler of Pilgrim's said the company is experimenting with job rotation and "cross-training," though this is aimed at paring cumulative-trauma injuries rather than making the work less dull. "It's a monotonous job, but there's a lot of jobs in this country that are," he said.
Poultry workers also must endure harsh work rules. Studies of job stress almost always identify "machine-pacing" and "lack of control" as key contributors to workplace stress. In poultry plants, this can include lack of control over bodily functions. "I'm a grown woman. I don't like being told when I need to go to the bathroom," says Hattie Pittman, a 35-year-old at a plant in Collins, Miss. This year, Ms. Pittman came down with a kidney infection that forced her to make frequent trips to the bathroom outside of designated breaks. She says her supervisor barked: "The rule is, you can't go to the bathroom more than three times a week, unless you got a doctor's permit."
A doctor later wrote her the necessary permit. But other workers in Mississippi and Arkansas said they have sometimes urinated on themselves because they were unable to locate a foreman for approval and were scared to leave the line. (B.C. Rogers said an employee "requiring use of restroom facilities is accommodated" and it dismisses claims that workers urinate on themselves as "rumors" spread by unions.)
Fear may come into play as well when workers are hurt. Companies have an incentive to underreport or downplay injuries, both to control soaring insurance and compensation costs, and to deflect the prying eye of OSHA. This has, in turn, led to frequent OSHA findings of "medical mismanagement," which includes failing to log injuries and returning hurt employees to work before they are fully recovered. At some plants, there also are safety bonuses, awarded to departments logging the fewest accidents. The system can put peer pressure on workers to ignore or fail to report injuries.
Lightly-trained medical personnel can add to the problem. B.C. Rogers, for instance, doesn't require first-aid workers to have the modest training of licensed practical nurses, though the company says it now plans to hire LPNs. Given the risks of poultry work, safety experts say plants should at least have LPNs on staff, supervised by a registered nurse or doctor.
Workers requiring serious medical attention can face other obstacles. In states such as Arkansas, the nation's largest poultry producer, injured workers must go to a company doctor unless they win permission from the state to pick their own. And poultry companies successfully lobbied for a recent overhaul of workers' compensation in Arkansas that severely restricts eligibility for claims.
Poultry companies also wield considerable influence in Washington. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy recently resigned after he allegedly received favors from agribusiness interests, including Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest poultry producer. A special counsel is investigating whether the affair weakened regulation of the poultry industry.
Workers, by contrast, have little representation. Roughly 80% are nonunion, and industry leaders such as Tyson and Perdue Chicken have long been renowned for combating unions. Asked about their views of unions, poultry workers typically responded with cautionary stories about vocal workers who were dismissed, harassed or reassigned to undesirable jobs on the cramped de-bone line or in the chiller.
Even without employer intimidation, poultry plants -- like many other low-wage workplaces -- are hard to organize. Wearing earplugs, most employees have little chance to chat except during brief breaks. High turnover poses another obstacle, as does the ethnic and racial mix. Blacks and whites tend to part ways when off the line. Both groups often are separated by language and culture from the growing number of Hispanic workers, many of whom speak English poorly and fear they will lose their jobs or housing if they make trouble. Some also work here illegally and fear any contact with authorities.
"The whole setup in these plants is ripe for exploitation," says Father Scott Friend, a Catholic priest whose De Queen congregation includes about 600 poultry workers. "There's no one that workers can go to or trust if they're being misused."
Many turn to the Spanish-speaking Father Friend. (While Pilgrim's Pride has six chaplains in its De Queen plant, none are Catholic.) On an autumn afternoon, the priest listens as a glum man named Jorge tells of his two years of work at the nearby Pilgrim's Pride plant. Though he himself has incurred only minor scrapes, Jorge says he has seen co-workers run over by forklifts, lose fingers and go numb in their arms and hands.
College-educated, Jorge says he emigrated here in hopes of making a "good wage" and eventually "moving up," as generations of immigrants have done before. "This is the dream of America, I believe," he says in formal, halting English.
But now he fears that hard labor in the chicken plant will lead nowhere. "Some nights, I see myself an old man, making the same money as now, doing the same work, only with hurting arms and hands." Asked what skills he has learned at the plant, he ponders the question for a moment. "There is one thing, yes," he says finally. "I can tell a chicken gizzard from a chicken liver, I can do that well."
He pauses again and picks at a calloused finger. "Please tell me," he says, "what a man may do with that."