ATLANTA – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced today that it reached a $300,000 settlement with Wayne Farms, one of the nation’s biggest poultry producers, on behalf of three people with disabilities who alleged disability discrimination on the job.
“We are pleased that this issue has been resolved for our clients who were treated incredibly unfairly by the poultry industry, which is notorious for putting profits ahead of people,” said Sarah Rich, SPLC senior staff attorney. “Now, more than ever, we should be strengthening the regulations to rein in the industry’s abuses rather than loosening them.”
The settlement was reached almost a year earlier, but a protective order prevented an announcement until a related case concluded.
The SPLC lawsuit describes how the company’s Decatur, Alabama, facilities maintained an inflexible attendance policy that led to employees with disabilities being fired after taking time off work to see a doctor – even when a doctor’s excuse was provided. Beginning in 2011, the SPLC reported the company on behalf of former employees to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency in charge of enforcing the country’s anti-discrimination laws. The effort sparked an investigation by the agency and, ultimately, an EEOC lawsuit in August 2016. The SPLC intervened in the case on behalf of its clients.
The lawsuit alleges that the SPLC’s clients were fired by Wayne Farms after accumulating too many attendance “points” due, in part, to absences related to their disabilities, including doctor visits. The SPLC and the EEOC argued that this point system, which results in firing after an employee accumulates enough points, is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it discriminates against workers with disabilities.
The suit details the alleged discrimination encountered by Salvadora Roman, a 17-year veteran of the company who was fired after developing carpal tunnel syndrome from a high-risk job on the debone line. Another SPLC client, Latonya Hodges, who suffered from asthma, was fired in the middle of an asthma attack, when she told supervisors that she needed to leave work to go to the emergency room, according to the lawsuit. Employee Alma Allen, who suffers from diabetes, was fired after more than a decade at Wayne Farms during a period when she was working with her doctor to control her glucose and diabetes-related conditions.
The SPLC reached the settlement on behalf of its clients in May 2019, which, in addition to a monetary award, included the reinstatement of Allen to her job at the Decatur plant, where she continues to work today.
The EEOC recently settled its case against Wayne Farms. A two-year consent decree is now in place requiring Wayne Farms to change its attendance policy and retrain its human resources staff to implement the new policy, and to pay an additional $175,000 to people the EEOC represented.
The lawsuit highlights the poultry industry’s problematic practice of penalizing workers for missing work due to illness, a practice the industry has not abandoned during the COVID-19 global pandemic, even as the coronavirus has ravaged the meatpacking and poultry industry.
The 2013 SPLC report Unsafe at these Speeds found Alabama’s poultry industry discourages workers from reporting injuries. Based on more than 300 interviews, it found that these workers – U.S. citizens and immigrants – are typically forced to endure dangerous conditions and silenced by threats of deportation and firing.
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