On August 30, 2019, Cohen Milstein and co-counsel filed a putative class action case, alleging that, since 2009, Perdue Farms Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., and more than dozen other chicken producers have conspired to depress the hourly wages paid to vulnerable workers in their chicken processing plants in violation of federal antitrust laws. The case was the first such class action in the country and was based on an independent factual investigation. The case is pending in the Unites States District Court for the District of Maryland.
On October 8, 2019, U.S. District Judge Stephanie A. Gallagher consolidated the class actions and appointed Cohen Milstein to serve as Interim Co-Lead Counsel.
The Plaintiffs seek to represent a class of non-supervisory production and maintenance workers at chicken processing plants in the continental United States. These workers perform dangerous yet essential jobs for Defendants, such as hanging live chickens on a slaughter line, slaughtering the birds, and repairing the slaughter equipment. According to a 2015 report by Oxfam America, “the rates of injuries and illness” in chicken processing plants “are shockingly high.” Yet plant workers earn wages that place them near or below the poverty line.
Given the gruelling nature of chicken processing, the high risk of physical injury in Defendants’ processing plants, and the low wages chicken processors receive, many have no interest in working in the chicken processing industry, and Defendants recruit workers who have limited alternative options for employment. As Debbie Berkowitz, OSHA’s former Senior Policy Adviser, observed, chicken processing is “an industry that targets the most vulnerable group of workers and brings them in. And when one group gets too powerful and stands up for their rights, they figure out who’s even more vulnerable and move them in.” Over the past decade, processing plants have relied heavily on migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, immigrants employed under EB3 visas, prison laborers, and participants in court-ordered substance abuse programs.
Defendants are alleged to have conspired to fix worker compensation below fair market levels while the chicken industry reaped record profits. Plaintiffs’ extensive private investigation of this illegal scheme revealed that Defendants used a three-prong strategy: (1) they conducted “off the books” in-person meetings where they discussed and ultimately set the wages and benefits paid to chicken processing plant workers; (2) they exchanged detailed, timely and competitively sensitive wage data through two survey companies, Agri Stats and WMS; and (3) they engaged in bilateral and regional plant-to-plant exchanges of current and projected compensation data.
Judy Jien, et al. v. Perdue Farms, Inc., et al., Case No. 1:19-cv002521-ELH, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland