Chicken Catchers Face Grueling, Dangerous Conditions

Horacio was only 18 when he began working as a chicken catcher in Alabama.

It was grueling and dirty work, even for an industry largely defined by punishing work that leaves employees injured and ailing years after they quit or get fired. Chicken catchers – the workers who catch birds in chicken houses and load them onto trucks bound for processing plants – encounter many of the same problems as plant workers. These problems include repetitive motion injuries, respiratory ailments and supervisors who have little concern for their safety.

Horacio and his crew worked at night because the chickens are calmer then. It’s also not as hot – though the heat inside the houses is still intense. Horacio and his co-workers typically brought a change of pants because the pants they wore to work would quickly become soaked with sweat, making it difficult to walk.

His crew typically filled 14 or 15 trailers with chickens during each shift. Each trailer held about 4,400 chickens. Horacio would carry about seven chickens at a time – roughly 63 pounds total. It’s a feat he would perform more than 100 times for each trailer.

For Horacio to carry seven chickens at a time, he had to pick the birds up by their feet and place the feet between the fingers of his hand until he held four live, squawking, scratching, pecking chickens. He then had to grab three more birds and secure their feet between the fingers of his other hand without dropping the first four chickens.

Given these conditions, it’s no surprise that chicken catchers often develop the same types of back, arm, wrist and hand injuries other poultry workers suffer, though the damage is often more severe. Chicken catchers have reported their hands have swollen to twice their normal size. Horacio’s hands, fingers and wrists would swell to the point where he couldn’t completely close his hands. They also would often go numb at night, a common symptom of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Chicken catchers may also develop respiratory ailments, due to the poor air quality in chicken houses. In fact, they are more likely than other blue-collar workers to develop chronic phlegm, wheezing and a variety of respiratory illnesses.1

Horacio, like other chicken catchers, said the dust and fecal matter in the air made his eyes burn and skin itch. He frequently had a rash from his work. He had a protective mask to wear, but it was so heavy he didn’t use it. None of the workers wore the masks because they inhibited their breathing – preventing them from working fast enough to meet their boss’ demands.

Fighting for minimum wage
Speed is crucial to this line of work. Chicken catchers say they are paid a group rate for catching the birds. They are paid the same rate regardless of how long it takes them, and there is no additional compensation for working more than 40 hours a week.

One chicken catcher said he typically worked with a crew of seven or eight workers who were required, at each henhouse they visited, to catch 24,000 or more chickens, usually within three hours. This means each worker had to catch and load about 1,000 chickens each hour, or about 17 chickens per minute.

The crew might be paid a lump sum of $200 or $250 for the entire load of chickens. If they were able to catch them all within three hours, they would earn more than the federal minimum wage. But if their pace slowed to less than the expected 17 chickens per minute, their wage might fall below the minimum. This situation is why wage-and-hour violations are perhaps more common among chicken catchers than processing plant workers.

But workers were expected to move slower when inspectors were present. Just as processing plant supervisors often have advance notice of a visit by inspectors, Horacio said his boss had advance notice when inspectors visited a chicken house where his crew was working. Workers were told to slow down and use all of the safety equipment during these visits. Once the inspectors left, the catchers were expected to work fast enough to make up for lost time.

Today, after 19 years as a chicken catcher, 37-year-old Horacio exhibits a tell-tale sign of the profession. Both of his arms are in constant pain. He also walks with a limp – a painful reminder of the time a truck ran over his foot as it backed into a chicken house. His boss insisted that he keep working through the pain.

But such behavior shouldn’t be surprising.

Once, his boss threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if a worker with a broken leg sued over the injury, Horacio said. Another worker was fired after slicing his hand on a chicken house ventilator.

Horacio also has been fired over an injury. While catching chickens in 2005, a bird escaped his grasp. As he attempted to grab it, he slipped and hurt his back so badly that he could not work for six months. It was his third serious back injury from chicken catching. He was immediately fired.

His boss didn’t pay for his injuries or take him to the doctor.

“If there’s no blood, I don’t pay anything,” his boss said.

 


 

[1] P.D. Morris, et al., Respiratory Symptoms and Pulmonary Function in Chicken Catchers in Poultry, 19 Am. J. of Indus. Med. 195–204 (1991).