Rulings Favor Workers Suing Tyson Foods

The Kansas City Star - Dan Margolies
February 16, 2009

A lawsuit claiming thousands of Kansas meatpacking workers were denied overtime and other compensation by Tyson Foods Inc. can proceed as a class action, a federal judge has ruled.   U.S. District Judge John Lungstrum on Thursday granted the workers’ request for class certification, setting the stage for a possible trial involving millions of dollars in alleged back pay.

The case was filed in May 2006 by workers at Tyson’s beef slaughterhouses in Holcomb and Emporia. The Holcomb operation employs about 2,500 hourly production workers. Although Tyson shut down the slaughter operations in Emporia a year ago, the plant continues to employ about 800 hourly workers.   At issue is whether Tyson should be required to pay the workers for time they spend donning and doffing protective gear; cleaning equipment; walking to and from changing, work and break areas; waiting for production lines to operate; and performing production work during unpaid meal periods.

The workers, many of them immigrants from Latin America, sued under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and under the Kansas Wage Payment Act as well as other legal theories. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the workers alleged overtime violations. Under the Kansas Wage Payment Act, they sought relief for “straight” time for which they allegedly were not compensated.   Lungstrum’s decision had two components. He conditionally certified the federal claims as a so-called collective action, which is similar to a class action except that the potential plaintiffs not named in the lawsuit are asked whether they want to opt into the lawsuit. And he certified the state law claims as a class action.

Although neither ruling addresses the merits of the workers’ claims, both make it possible for the workers to proceed collectively. A different result would have been a setback for the workers, because it would have made it economically unfeasible for them to proceed.

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A year ago, Lungstrum handed down another significant ruling in the case, reinterpreting 10th Circuit law in light of a 2005 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court held that any activity that is “integral and indispensable” to a “principal activity” performed by production workers is compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act.   In rejecting Tyson’s motion for summary judgment, Lungstrum ruled that whether standard protective clothing was “integral and indispensable” to Tyson employees’ work was a factual question for a jury to decide.

He also rejected Tyson’s argument that a 1994 settlement between the U.S. Labor Department and meatpacker IBP, which Tyson later acquired, barred the workers’ request for overtime. The settlement required IBP to compensate workers who donned specialized protective clothing an additional four minutes per shift.