Labor Unions Dispute Waiver Increasing Chicken Production Limits

Labor unions alleged in a complaint filed on Tuesday in the District of Columbia District Court against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that a change in the limit for chickens a plant can process to 175 birds per minute (bpm) when in possession of a waiver is detrimental to the employees and increases the risk of injury.

The complaint stated that the Food Safety Inspection Service’s (FSIS) “failure to consider and address the impact of its actions on worker safety violates basic standards of reasoned decisionmaking, and its unexplained departure from the conclusions set forth in its 2014 rulemaking represents classic arbitrary and capricious action.” The plaintiffs include five United Food and Commercial Workers Unions, representing workers at Tyson Foods and Wayne Farms, and an international labor union they are associated with. They alleged that 43 percent of poultry processing plants have the waivers or are otherwise authorized to increase production speeds.

A waiver program recently adopted by the USDA and its FSIS allows a plant to exceed the limits for line speed set in a 2014 regulation. “When FSIS issued its 2014 regulation, it considered an extensive rulemaking record demonstrating the harms that faster line speeds can cause poultry workers. On the basis of that rulemaking record, FSIS abandoned a proposal to allow poultry processing plants to operate at a maximum line speed of 175 birds per minute (bpm), instead capping the maximum line speed at 140 bpm and adopting other regulations designed to protect worker safety at poultry processing plants,” the complaint said.

The unions alleged that FSIS claimed it did not have authority to address their safety concerns in its new regulation, however, they did address the concerns when creating the regulation in 2014. The waiver program reportedly did not proceed through normal procedures, which would have given opportunities for comments. The plaintiffs further claimed that the waiver program does not comply with the existing waiver regulations, which only allow waivers for new technologies or other improvements.

The lawsuit cited common musculoskeletal problems among workers at the processing plants, including carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, because of the repetitive motions workers make each day in preparing the chickens. The plaintiffs claimed an increase of speed would provide a higher risk of physical injuries for the workers.

The waiver allegedly came after the National Chicken Council sought to eliminate maximum line speed regulations in 2017. FSIS denied the council’s petition but stated its intent to create the waivers. The waiver program began in September 2018, but, according to the complaint, does not require applicants to show potential health impacts or safety related to the increase in speed.

The unions, represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group, are seeking for the court to rule that the waiver program is not in observance of legal procedure and set it aside, along with waivers issued to the ten poultry plants where the unions’ members work.