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Stories from the field: SPLC helps poultry workers stand up for their rights

An SPLC outreach paralegal recounts her experience meeting a poultry worker forced to choose between her health and her job. 

Poultry processing is among the most grueling jobs I have come across in my two-and-a-half years as an outreach paralegal with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project.

Workers on the processing line stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a knife in hand, cutting and ripping chicken carcasses that fly by at breakneck speed. For many, it is a dehumanizing experience.

Workers who rest their aching hands suffer the invective of line supervisors charged with pushing workers beyond their physical limits. Expected to perform as machines, these workers are often denied bathroom breaks. It’s not uncommon for poultry workers to soil themselves as they work.

Beatriz Navedo is one of the many poultry workers who helped me understand the human cost of this industry that helps feed a nation. She was recruited from Puerto Rico by a staffing agency to debone chicken carcasses at a Wayne Farms processing plant in Enterprise, Alabama.

Beatriz Navedo
Beatriz Navedo

When I first met her in January, she had been at Wayne Farms for little more than six months. Though she was still new to the job, the work had already taken a toll on her body: Her hands were swollen from overuse. Her movements were slow and deliberate – the result of a hernia aggravated by the demands the job inflicted on her body day in and day out.

But Beatriz endured and worked through the pain for months, only occasionally missing work to visit her doctor or rest her aching body. Sitting in a dark, sparsely furnished apartment, she sighed as she recounted the optimism she felt when she first came to the United States. Her dreams quickly faded as her medical bills began to mount.

With each medical absence, Beatriz moved one step closer to losing her job. Wayne Farms, like many poultry processing companies, gives workers a point each time they miss work, with just a few limited exceptions. Workers are automatically fired once they reach 10 points.

When Beatriz suffered a heart attack while working the processing line, the plant made her daughter, also a plant employee, drive her to the hospital rather than call an ambulance. Both Beatriz and her daughter received a point. At Wayne Farms, even a heart attack is not a valid excuse for missing work. Beatriz was eventually fired because of her medical absences.

In April, the SPLC helped Beatriz file a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) against the company for unlawfully retaliating against her for seeking medical treatment. She also joined a larger group of workers in filing another OSHA complaint detailing the fast work speeds and other dangerous work conditions within the plant.

Since news of the complaints broke, I have received call after call from desperate workers seeking justice. The details of their stories vary, but the message is the same: Poultry plant workers are suffering.

At times, it has been hard not to feel overwhelmed by the great injustices poultry workers face in Enterprise and throughout the country. But I have also been inspired by the workers’ resilience. Beatriz and her co-workers were drowning in medical debt and struggling to get by, but they were determined to stand up for their rights.

The deck is stacked against poultry workers. The nature of their work – performing the same rapid movements thousands of times per day – almost guarantees injury. But poultry plants, as much as they demand that their workers perform at this relentless pace, do not want injured workers on their payrolls. They have implemented a system to ensure that workers are terminated – thrown away – once their disabilities become too severe.

Courageous workers such as Beatriz are fighting to change this system. 


Kristin Donovan is a bilingual outreach paralegal in the SPLC’s Georgia office.