When Michelle Galvan heard the radio announcing job openings at a Case Farms' poultry plant in Ohio, she rushed to meet with recruiters in her hometown - McAllen, in southern Texas. The deal sounded good: She would pack boneless chicken breasts for $5.50 an hour, and the company would provide free furnished housing and transportation.
But after traveling 2,000 icy miles in a flatbed pickup truck in January 1996, Ms. Galvan says she was put in an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in Winesberg, Ohio, along with 17 roommates. Then, she alleges, the company took rent and transportation fees out of her paycheck.
Galvan is among 24 plaintiffs now suing Case Farms for making false promises and providing "squalid" and overcrowded living quarters.
They are part of a groundbreaking lawsuit seeking, for the first time, to apply laws designed to protect migrant seasonal workers to the growing numbers of laborers recruited from Texas, California, and other states to poultry processing factories in the Midwest and South.
In a precedent-setting March 23 order just before the trial, federal Judge William Wayne Justice said the laws, traditionally used to protect farmworkers, can also cover migratory poultry laborers.
The case could have wide-ranging ramifications. It may broaden the definition of who is a migrant worker, impacting a variety of industries, such as meat processing, that are increasingly relying on foreign-recruited workers in a tight US labor market.
"For years people in the agricultural labor business said, 'Let's try to make the agricultural labor market more like the nonfarm labor market,' and I think the reality is nonfarm labor markets are taking on lots of characteristics of farm labor markets," says Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California in Davis. "There used to be a very clear distinction between processing workers and field workers, and that clearly has changed in the last decade."
Poultry companies, struggling to staff factories coping with more than 100 percent annual turnover, often recruit through state employment agencies in Texas, California, and elsewhere.
The industry has also benefited from a growing immigrant work force from Mexico and Central America. Unions say 50 percent of America's 220,000 poultry workers are immigrants, and National Chicken Council vice president Bill Roenigk says that may be a fair estimate.
In a 1998 survey of poultry labor conditions, the US Department of Labor found 30 percent of chicken processors engaged in "remote recruitment" of workers.
"Only 8 percent of these provided disclosure at the time of recruitment," the investigators found, and "some contractors provide unsafe transportation and housing." Prophetically, the survey forecast "potential problems" with migrant labor law.
"It's a different definition of migrant work that we are struggling with," says the Rev. Jim Lewis, of the Maryland-based Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance. "Migrant work used to mean workers would come in the summer and do the work and then get out. Now we are dealing with the kind of workers who come in and stay, and yet move around in the area."
Attorney Laurence Norton, representing the Texas workers, says the case could have a "domino effect" by compelling other companies either to scale back enticing promises of such benefits as free housing and transportation, or to invest the money necessary to fulfill their guarantees.
Attorneys for Case Farms did not returned repeated requests for comment, but in court they contend the company isn't responsible for worker housing, or for promises allegedly made in Texas by the company's recruiter, a now-defunct temporary agency called America's Tempcorp. They also refute the idea that the workers are migrant.
Poultry industry officials are watching the case, and say they disagree with the initial ruling and expect an appeal. "We have no migrant workers at all," says Richard Lobb, spokesman for the Washington-based National Chicken Council. "When people are given a job in a poultry plant, it is expected that it is a permanent full-time position.... They are not migrant, they are not seasonal."
But the migrant labor law's reach is broad, and congressional records suggest it was designed to protect workers who migrate long distances for farm-related work.
"They are using the same recruitment, the same housing and transportation arrangements" as farm operators, argues worker attorney Selena Solis, of Texas Rural Legal Aid. "They tell them 'don't take any furnishings, don't bring anything but your clothes, you don't need a car.' They get there and they are virtually dependent on the employer."
Lobb downplays the labor recruitment trend, saying, "I don't know that it is going on much these days at all."
What's a temp worker?
The case also raises a fundamental debate over the significance of the industry's constant employee turnover. Judge Justice reasons that Case Farms' high turnover in effect rendered the workers temporary: The recruits from Texas stayed on the job for just six weeks on average.
Lobb acknowledges a "continuing labor shortage in this industry. It is not easy to keep plants staffed." But he argues, "Turnover is not an unusual phenomenon in many jobs, that does not make them seasonal. Turnover does not equate to temporary."
Case Farms plaintiff Israel Trevino, a veteran of poultry slaughterhouses and farm labor, says he expected to sort chicken parts at Case Farms in Ohio for four months.
But when he arrived in mid-winter to a cramped apartment infested with rats and cockroaches, he worked for just three weeks to save enough money to return to his home in Eagle Pass, Texas.