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June 5, 2013

Huffington Post: Poultry Worker Study Finds Alarming Rate Of Carpal Tunnel As USDA Considers Line Speedup

Poultry Worker Postcard to Vilsack_Page_1WASHINGTON — A recent government study of workers at a poultry plant in South Carolina determined that four out of 10 showed signs of the painful hand-and-arm condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome, a finding that raises fresh concerns about a federal proposal that would allow plants to speed up their slaughtering lines.

Poultry processing work is full of repetitive motion, and numerous reports have documented the job’s health and safety hazards over the years. The recent study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) examined just one plant, but workplace health experts say it offers one of the most granular looks at how the job takes a toll on line workers — and how faster line speeds, currently being considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could possibly make things worse.

“This gives you a snapshot of what goes on in one plant,” said Celeste Monforton, a public health expert at George Washington University. “It’s done and it shows damning results. … I don’t know how USDA will dismiss what’s in this.”

NIOSH experts visited the plant twice last year, examining workers who eviscerate, debone and cut chickens to prepare them for sale, according to the report. They interviewed the workers about hand and arm pain and performed nerve conduction tests on them. Forty-two percent had indications of carpal tunnel, and a majority of workers reported “multiple musculoskeletal symptoms,” most commonly hand and wrist pain.

Read the report below.

Out of 318 participants at the plant, 213 “reported pain, burning, numbness or tingling in their hands or wrists in the past 12 months.” Furthermore, two-thirds of those 213 workers reported “awakening from sleep because of these symptoms.”

Despite those findings, public health and labor advocates say these workers may soon see their workloads increase.

Last year, the USDA put forth a proposal to overhaul the poultry inspection process. The change would pull many government inspectors off the slaughtering line where they visually inspect birds, moving resources instead toward the detection of bacteria and other invisible dangers. The rule change would thereby allow poultry plants to speed up their slaughtering lines, delivering savings to poultry companies.

Backers have pitched the proposal as a cost-saver for both government and industry. Critics, however, have called it a giveaway to the poultry business that could have unintended consequences.

Many occupational health experts have objected to the proposal, saying line speeds already move too fast for workers like those in the South Carolina plant that NIOSH visited. USDA officials have told stakeholders privately that the change wouldn’t impact line workers, drawing a distinction between the slaughtering process, where the speedup would occur, and the processing line, where most workers toil.

But critics like Tony Corbo, a lobbyist at the watchdog group Food & Water Watch, say that if chickens are being slaughtered at a faster rate, then it stands to reason they will be processed at a faster rate as well. Corbo told HuffPost he’s skeptical that poultry plants, well-known for their tight controls on labor costs, will be eager to add more workers to the lines to account for a slaughtering speedup. Many plant employees already work essentially shoulder-to-shoulder, he noted.

“If you’re speeding up the lines, guess what — it’s going to impact the speed at which those workers are chopping up the chickens,” Corbo said. “Unless they establish new lines in the factories, those workers are going to be working faster and faster.

“Remember Lucy in the candy factory?” he added.

Poultry line workers are among some of the most vulnerable laborers in the U.S. The polyglot workforces often include immigrants from Latin American and African countries, who generally work for low pay on demanding production schedules. Class-action lawsuits have become common in the industry, with workers claiming they’re shorted on their wages or required to work off the clock.

The NIOSH study was done at the request of the Agriculture Department, and the South Carolina plant was required to undergo the evaluation in order to secure a waiver under the current line-speed rules. A NIOSH spokeswoman said experts will evaluate the workers again after the speedup to determine what, if any, the health effects have been. Those results will be shared with the USDA as well.

An Agriculture Department spokeswoman said the agency “welcomes NIOSH’s work” and is reviewing the study’s findings.

“This data is preliminary,” she said in an email. “We look forward to the full results of NIOSH’s research and to working with them further on this issue.”

The agency wouldn’t be required to alter or scrap the speed-up proposal based on any health findings, and it isn’t clear what bearing NIOSH’s studies will have on the final rule. As Monforton and others noted, the White House and the USDA appear committed to moving forward with the rule.

The president’s most recent budget proposal assumes the rule will go into effect — an assumption that the left-leaning Center for Progressive Reform calls a “rebuke” to concerned parties.

“The President’s budget suggests that most of these concerns, raised by a broad coalition of the public interest community, have been ignored in a headlong rush to finalize a rule that officials believe will save a few million dollars,” the group wrote. “Yet, some hope remains that the rule is not written in stone.”

Read the NIOSH report here.

May 21, 2013

UFCW President Joe Hansen in The Hill: Treat nonprofit healthcare fairly

_BBC9887“If you already have health insurance through your job — and because many of you are members of unions, you do — nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change your coverage or your doctor. Let me repeat: Nothing in this plan will require you to change your coverage or your doctor.” Those were the words spoken by President Obama at the AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh on Sept. 15, 2009.

Since then, Congress has passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and it has been signed into law.

It has withstood a challenge before the Supreme Court. Regulations have been issued, exchanges created, and open enrollment is set to begin in a matter of months. Unfortunately, what also has become increasingly clear with each passing day is that the president’s statement to labor in 2009 is simply not true for millions of workers.

For decades, unions have negotiated high quality, affordable health insurance through nonprofit Taft-Hartley plans — one of the few reliable private providers for lower income individuals.

These plans are mutually agreed upon between union members and participating employers and provide insurance to millions of American workers.

In addition to being a long-standing and successful provider, these plans have been models of efficiency, achieving better cost savings than for-profit insurance carriers with medical loss ratios often exceeding 90 percent. That means 90 cents out of every dollar go to patient care.

Savings in healthcare can free up money for wages and pensions, and thus drive the economy forward for all of us.

But as currently interpreted, the ACA would block these plans from the law’s benefits (such as the subsidy for lower-income individuals and families) while subjecting them to the law’s penalties (like the $63 per insured person to subsidize Big Insurance). This creates unstoppable incentives for employers to reduce weekly hours for workers currently on our plans and push them onto the exchanges where many will pay higher costs for poorer insurance with a more limited network of providers. In other words, they will be forced to change their coverage and quite possibly their doctor. Others will be channeled into Medicaid, where taxpayers must pick up the tab.

In addition, the ACA includes a fine for failing to cover full-time workers but includes no such penalty for part-timers (defined as working less than 30 hours a week). As a result, many employers are either reducing hours below 30 or discontinuing part-time health coverage altogether. This is a cut in pay and benefits workers simply cannot afford. For example, a worker making $10 an hour that has his or her schedule cut by six hours a week would lose $3,100 a year in income. With millions of workers impacted, this would have a devastating effect on our economy.

Beginning next year, states are required to have health insurance exchanges up and running to cover the growing uninsured population in this country.

The ACA offers a subsidy to lower-income individuals and families so they can afford to purchase this insurance. As many of our members fall into this category, we believe the subsidy can and should apply to nonprofit plans. All we want is equality — where our plans are treated the same as for-profit insurers.

The Obama administration has refused our request, citing legal hurdles. But since the treatment of Taft-Hartley plans is not fully described in the ACA, we believe the regulatory process is exactly the appropriate place to deem them qualified health plans eligible for subsidies. Any objective review of the evidence and reasonable definition of what our funds provide leads to this conclusion.

We’d be open to a legislative fix, but ultimately this is the administration’s responsibility. They are leading the regulatory process. It’s their signature law.

We don’t want a handout. Our members want to keep the healthcare they currently have. Let me repeat — our members want to keep the healthcare they currently have. We just want them to be treated fairly.

Hansen is the president of the 1.3 million member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and chairman of Change to Win.

April 23, 2013

UFCW Members Lobby New York Legislators

UFCW members from local unions all across New York descended upon the Capitol in Albany today to lobby their elected officials about important bills pending in the Assembly and the Senate.

UFCW members lobbied in support of the New York DREAM Act, the Fair Elections Act, the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, medical marijuana, and conveyed their strong opposition to the Walmart tax credit that was structured into the recently passed minimum wage deal.

For Isha Matko, a UFCW Local 1500 member who works at Gristedes in New York City, this was her first lobbying experience.

“We’re here to help bring a voice to more workers. This helps to ensure that Assemblymembers and Senators are seeing and hearing from real people. It’s a powerful experience being able to talk with people who have the ability to make a difference in all our lives.”

The real impact in lobbying comes from elected officials being able to attach a personal face to the bills that they vote on. Having a lobby day sends a strong reminder that they work for real people–not just the wealthy or big corporations. Juan Guardado, a UFCW Local 1500 member who works at Stop & Shop in West Islip, had a very personal reason for lobbying.

“I’m happy to be here because I really support the DREAM Act. I have a family member who is undocumented and despite getting straight A’s wasn’t eligible for any financial aid. He had to stop going to school because he couldn’t afford it. It’s important for working people to talk to their elected officials because they need to see firsthand that we care, we’re informed and we’re struggling.”

As the lobby day came to a close, UFCW Local One union representative Mark Manna of Buffalo hit on the true importance of the day.

“We’re working people. We don’t have $1,000 suits or a big checkbook, but we have a right to let our elected officials know what we’re concerned about. At the end of the day we keep score with votes, not with how much money is raised.”

Too often, when the word “lobby” is tossed around people immediately think “wealthy” and “special interest.” Yesterday in New York, UFCW members made sure their elected officials associated “lobby” with “workers.”