Why Tyson Foods keeps getting sued by its own employees

The company is fighting a class action lawsuit by its own employees, who claim the world's second-largest meat processor uses a 'gang system' to avoid paying overtime. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A man walks past people protesting over conditions for Tyson Foods workers and animals outside the US Supreme Court in Washington November 10, 2015. US Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism on Tuesday toward Tyson Foods Inc's challenge to an almost $5.8-million judgment against the company over worker pay at an Iowa pork facility in a closely watched class action case.

Some justices on the US Supreme Court seemed sympathetic towards 3,000 Tyson Foods workers who sued their employer for “wage theft,” after the company continually failed to pay workers at a pork plant in Iowa for overtime, as mandated by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

In the case Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo, the employees formed a class action suit against Tyson, arguing they were not paid for the time it took to put on and take off protective gear, lunch breaks, and other tasks outside the immediate job description. Tyson has practiced a “gang system,” where workers’ pay clock only starts when they reach the processing line, cheating their workers out of 18-21 minutes of pay each day – a violation of FLSA. The workers proved their damages by averaging videotape observations of how long it took the workers to prepare for work.

Argued Tuesday before the Supreme Court, the world’s second-largest meat processor asked the court to throw out the case which resulted in a $5.8 million jury verdict against the company, The New York Times reported. Tyson said the workers should calculate losses individually, rather than rely on a statistical average. However David Frederick, a lawyer for the workers, argued that the averaging approach was legitimate because the employees rotate among different assignments.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to agree with Frederick, when she interrupted Tyson lawyer Carter Phillips as he was explaining why the workers’ statistical study was inappropriate. “Mr. Phillips,” she said, throwing her hand up in the air, “I’m completely at a loss as to what you’re complaining about.” 

The company also argued that their employees are not eligible for a class action lawsuit because their jobs are too different. Tyson’s lawyers say the ruling is illegitimate because the workers participating in the case have different jobs, therefore different grievances.

“The plaintiffs were allowed to pursue a class of more than 3,300 employees who occupied more than 400 jobs which required widely differing amounts of time to perform their donning, doffing and washing tasks,” Mr. Philips told the court. “All you’ve got is averaging across the widest imaginable range of employees performing different tasks with different requirements.”

But Mr. Fredreick said the majority of equipment was similar. “We’re talking about the same basic kinds of gear. We’re talking about different kinds of gloves,” said Frederick.

And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to agree. She responded that the basic tasks performed by these 3,000 employees “weren’t all that different.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy showed his skepticism of Tyson’s argument when he told Philips, “I just don’t understand your argument.”

But Tyson’s fight in this case is hardly about the money. Mother Jones reported that the $6 million fine is equivalent to two hours’ worth of Tyson’s annual profits of $30 billion. And as Mother Jones reports, “it’s still far cheaper in the long run for Tyson to continue fending off a few lawsuits than it is to comply with the recordkeeping law and pay workers accordingly.” 

Although the monetary penalties may seem relatively insignificant, Tyson still has a big stake in the court’s verdict. If the court rules in Tyson’s favor and throws out the suit, it will be more difficult for workers to file future class actions for wage and hour theft. This means that Tyson would be able to avoid following FLSA payment laws, and avoid the hassle of million-dollar employee lawsuits. 

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