Supreme Court backs Tyson workers in wage theft suit

The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of workers at a Tyson Food pork processing plant who sued the company for wage theft.

A 6-2 ruling by the court upheld the workers’ right to sue as a class.

A group of Tyson workers at the company’s Snow Lake plant in Iowa including Peg Bouaphakeo in 2011 sued Tyson for not paying them the correct amount of overtime.

Bouaphakeo and her colleagues must wear sanitary and protective gear on the job. The list of required gear is extensive. Putting the gear on (donning) and taking it off (doffing) is part of the job, and Tyson is required to pay its workers for doing it.

Instead of keeping records that accurately show how much time it takes to doff and don safety and sanitation gear, Tyson estimated the amount.

The workers contended in court that the company’s estimation of their donning and doffing time deprived them of overtime pay that they earned.

After the suit was filed, a judge agreed to make the workers suit a class action suit that would affect 3300 Tyson employees at the Snow Lake plant.

A jury trial was conducted. The jury found in favor of the workers and awarded them $5.8 million in unpaid wages.

Tyson appealed the decision, arguing that the judge should not have allowed the workers to sue as a class.

An appeals court ruled that the class action in this case was valid, and the Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

“(The Supreme Court’s) decision is a strong reaffirmation of workers’ rights to join together in taking their employer to court for failing to pay wages due under state and federal laws,” said Scott Michelman, a Public Citizen attorney and member of the team of attorneys who represented the workers. “The Supreme Court rejected the corporate defense bar’s strong push to eliminate the ability of workers and consumers to litigate common claims through class actions – which are critical to holding corporations accountable for systemic wrongdoing.”

Bouaphakeo and her colleagues, many of whom like Bouaphakeo are immigrants, work in a grueling and dangerous environment where animals are slaughtered and processed into meat sold in local supermarkets.

To ensure their own safety and the safety of the consuming public, workers on the production line must wear protective gear that includes aprons, gloves, sleeves, hairnets, hard hats, ear plugs, and personal protective equipment.

One of the personal protective equipment items that they wear is a stomach shield to protect themselves from wounds caused by the super-sharp knives wielded on the production line.

In 1988, the Department of Labor found that IBP, the company that owned the Snow Lake facility before Tyson, was not keeping records to show the actual time that its workers were spending donning and doffing their protective gear or how much time it took for the workers to walk from their dressing area to the production area and back.

A court agreed with the Department of Labor and issued an injunction requiring IBP to keep records.

IBP ignored the injunction, and in 1998, the department again filed suit.

When Tyson bought IBP in 2001 and took over management of the plant, it continued IBP’s practice of not recording the time that it took workers to doff and don their protective gear and walk to and from the production area.

That practice led to the suit by Bouaphakeo and her colleagues.

Bouaphakeo’s attorneys including Robert Wiggins, a plaintiff’s attorney from Birmingham, Alabama, argued that more than the original plaintiffs were adversely affected by Tyson’s refusal to keep records of the doffing and donning time and that they should be included as a class in the suit.

Making the suit a class action suit gives the workers a better chance of getting their grievances resolved.

Pursuing the claims on an individual basis as the Tyson and other employers would prefer would be expensive and time consuming, representing an insurmountable burden for many of those wronged by their employer’s action.

Business groups supported Tyson’s appeal and were hoping that the Supreme Court would use the appeal to build on its 2011 Walmart v. Dukes decision that women Walmart employees couldn’t sue the company for discrimination as a class.

The Bouaphakeo now goes back to the district court where the case was originally tried. The court will determine whether any of the workers included in the class action should be excluded from receiving the compensation owed them.