WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Labor Department reached a $10 million settlement with Perdue Farms Inc. in a Tennessee court and filed suit against Tyson Foods Inc. in a dispute over pay for poultry workers.
The department also said it would be contacting other poultry companies that don't pay workers for time spent putting on and taking off work clothing and protective gear.
Perdue Farms agreed to change its pay practices and to compensate 25,000 current and former employees for time spent ``donning and doffing'' gear and sanitizing their work area, according a federal court filing in the Middle District of Tennessee. Perdue operates a poultry processing plant in Monterey, Tenn., about 75 miles west of Knoxville.
``This is a very important and, I believe, historic development,'' Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said Thursday. ``This is a major victory for the workers, who will now get paid what they are entitled to and be compensated for health and safety precautions at their plants.''
Perdue Farms Chairman Jim Perdue said he was pleased to get the matter settled.
``For many years various lawsuits have left this issue unresolved, thus creating confusion in the workplace,'' Perdue said. ``It is always our goal to adhere to the law.''
Several individual suits have been filed over compensation for this disputed time and courts have disagreed on the matter, the government said.
There are 174 poultry processing plants across the country employing about 250,000 workers, said Tammy D. McCutchen, the department's wage and hour administrator. Most poultry workers are immigrants paid less than $7-an-hour.
Eugene Scalia, the department's top lawyer, said the government will soon contact poultry companies who decline to pay for time spent putting on or taking off gear.
``I hope the agreement we have reached (with Perdue) will serve as a model,'' he said
Scalia estimated that the time involved in donning and doffing equipment amounts to about eight minutes per day and said compensation for past unpaid time could be as much as $500 per worker per year.
Scalia said there had been negotiations with Tyson before the decision was made to file suit, but declined to elaborate on the talks.
The department charged Tyson with violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by requiring workers to be dressed in protective gear when the production line starts running and not paying them for time spent changing clothes or cleaning up at the end of the day.
Tyson, which has plants at Shelbyville, and Union City, Tenn., issued a statement expressing disappointment at the suit and arguing that the department's position differs from court opinions.
``Donning and doffing ... is nothing more than putting on clothing, which in our plants, typically includes a hair net, earplugs and a white lab coat. To put this in perspective, 'donning and doffing' is something most of us do every day, whether we're construction workers putting on hardhats and gloves or office workers putting on business attire,'' the company said.
Tyson also challenged the department's characterization of poultry workers, saying its work force averages $8.63 an hour and is made up of a broad spectrum of people.