Tyson Undocumented Worker Trial Set

February 1, 2007
Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s largest meat producer, has until March 3, 2008, to prepare its defense against allegations of hiring undocumented workers to depress wages at eight of its chicken processing plants.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, set the trial date on Monday, January 29.

A lot appears to be riding on Trollinger v. Tyson Foods Inc., which gained class-action status in the fall.

“Depending on how things turn out, this case may do more in deterring the hiring of undocumented workers than any act that Congress has passed in 20 years,” says James Hall, a partner at the Los Angeles law firm of Barlow, Kobata & Denis.

The Tyson case will be of interest to employers of all sizes because the meat producer will likely rely on a defense that many companies invoke when charged with hiring illegal workers: They weren’t aware of it.

Companies often claim being unaware of employing illegal workers because external labor recruiters were responsible for the hirings. In addition, employers cite inefficiencies within the federal government’s Basic Pilot employment verification program for their inability to determine the authenticity of a job candidate’s documents. About 12,000 companies have signed up for the Basic Pilot program, which was created in 1997.

“Those excuses are not going to work,” says Howard Foster, an attorney for the plaintiffs and a shareholder at Johnson & Bell in Chicago. Foster contends companies can do more than rely on Basic Pilot and that there are other signs that can be used to determine whether a job candidate might be using falsified documents, such as a lack of proficiency in English.

“We believe the plaintiffs’ claims are simply without merit and are largely based on federal charges Tyson has already successfully defended,” says Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson. “A lot can happen in the next year; the case may or may not even get to trial.”

Foster will argue that Tyson is in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. He has already had some success in this arena. Last year, the Zirkle Fruit Co., a fruit grower in Selah, Washington, settled a class-action suit for $1.3 million.

That case was brought by a group of legal workers who claimed that Zirkle and its recruitment contractor, Selective Employment Agency, had hired undocumented employees to maintain artificially de­pressed wages.

The financial blow to Tyson could be severe, since the suit represents 35,000 workers seeking back pay for depressed wages resulting from the hiring of undocumented workers.

“These class-action suits can be costly,” Hall says. “Tyson could wind up having to pay millions.”

Foster has said that the wages were about 30 percent below the level of salaries paid to unskilled workers by other companies in the vicinity of 15 Tyson plants. The eight Tyson plants named in the lawsuit are Shelbyville and Corydon, Indiana; Gadsden, Blountsville and Ashland, Alabama; Sedalia, Missouri; Center, Texas; and Glen Allen, Virginia.

“All elements of the immigration issue must be addressed, or none of them will be resolved,” says Dave Ray, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute in Washington. He declined to comment on Tyson, a member of the organization, because the case is still pending.

Gina Ruiz