Obama Administration Turns Its Back on Poultry Processing Workers

Only in Washington, D.C. is nothing portrayed as something. Out in the nation, not so much. And so it was late last week that the Obama Administration took a victory lap for not making life even more miserable for some of the most abused workers in America. Yup, despite the best efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is supposed to watch out for workers' well-being, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the life-long booster for corporate agriculture, gave a swift kick in the pants to all those low-wage people of color who make the chicken nuggets and chick filets that now dominate what's for dinner.

Up until last Thursday, USDA was claiming loudly to anyone who would listen that it doesn't "do" worker protection. Then the agency did a full 180 in the middle of the road, and now claims it has addressed workers' concerns with the help of its new best friends at OSHA. Those workers are the folks who toil at workplaces so miserable that many states make it a crime to film inside them.

How did USDA achieve this turnaround? It backed down from a truly brutal proposal to raise the speed of the chicken processing line to 175 birds/minute (three birds/second) and instead will keep the status quo of 140 birds/minute (2.3 birds/second). (House Republicans, are you taking strategy notes? Just demand the sky, the moon, and the stars and be happy when you get the world. Or did President Obama learn that from you?) But perhaps I sound a little naïve. I mean, incremental change is the way the nation's Capital usually operates, right?

Of course, the advantages or disadvantages of leaving things the way they are depends on the way they are. And, sadly, the way things are is downright awful. Americans eat eight billion chickens annually, produced by workers who already suffer OSHA-recordable injuries at the rate of 4.9 percent annually. That's a rate about 33 percent higher than the 3.7 percent injury rate in American industry as a whole. More troubling, those numbers understate the true rate of injury by at least an order of magnitude. It turns out, you see, that workers who complain or miss work are threatened with being fired or deported. People willing to earn $11/hour to do such grueling work don't have too many other options and they keep their mouths shut until they can't do the work any longer. And poultry workers frequently suffer musculoskeletal injuries like carpal tunnel and epicondylitis (aka "tennis elbow") that are notoriously under-reported because employers claim that they are not work-related.

These injuries are not minor. According to a terrific report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, men who "hang birds" for the slaughtering line carry six or seven live chickens at a time -- 60 pounds or more -- by looping the claws over their fingers. Then, they lift the birds over their heads to hand them on hooks, repeating the process 100 times a day or more. Others repeat the same cutting motions on the carcasses, thousands of times in a shift. Not given time to sharpen their knives or even to go to the bathroom, workers stab themselves in the thigh as they slash at the birds, suffer severe carpal tunnel injuries that turn their hands into claws, become dizzy because of the chemicals used in processing, or slip and fall on floors soaked with blood and guts.

In a fair world, if you are USDA and you don't "do" worker safety, you shouldn't do in worker safety, right? So what did the good people at OSHA get during inter-agency negotiations? Not a mandate to establish standards for ergonomically safe work stations that spare the hands, arms, and backs of the workers so they are not disabled at the ripe old age of 35? No, indeed. In fact one high-ranking OSHA official told me that the idea that they would write such a rule was laughable. Instead, what OSHA won was (1) a poster, developed in collaboration with USDA, that tells workers how to recognize the early signs that the work is causing chronic injuries; (2) some yammering at training sessions for USDA inspectors to the effect that they should phone OSHA if they see anything untoward; and (3) a little box for employers to check stating that they don't stop workers from reporting injuries. Oh, and by the way, 20 plants are exempted from the 140 birds/minute rule; they're part of a pilot program and have been "grandfathered in," so their speed limit remains at175 bpm.

The official reason for all this marching vigorously in place on worker safety is USDA's determination to "modernize" poultry processing, by which they mean firing 800 federal inspectors, pulling the remaining workforce off the line, and sending them marching around the plant to troubleshoot. In place of the inspectors, guess who will figure out if the carcasses are diseased or contaminated by feces and feathers? Those same workers, that's who. The idea gives multi-tasking a whole new meaning.

Obama's government is not a stable of NFL teams that we're encouraged to applaud when they win a game against another NFL team, as in OSHA 1, USDA 0. Last time I looked, OSHA and USDA leaders were accountable to the same guy in the White House. Measuring their accomplishments in terms of the microscopic victories they win from each other doesn't help people who need it. It helps them not at all.