Department of Labor provides little enforcement for Cargill workers.

It may not seem like much, but taking on and off your uniform your work can end up costing you money.

Lots of it.

That’s what the largely Latino workforce at Cargill plants around the country learned.

These workers have to put on and remove protective equipment that they wear to ensure their own and consumers’ safety.

In addition to the beginning and ending of their shift, a time when many workers would also end up spending off-the-clock time cleaning their uniforms, the employees would take off the equipment during the 30-minute break required by law.

Doing so can take as much as 20 minutes, according to Brian P. McCafferty, a lawyer in the Philadelphia area who has represented thousands of workers in lawsuits against the meatpacking giant.

The workers contended this activity should be considered part of the work day, since it related directly to the performance of their job.

The problem for the workers was that the company disagreed, and refused to pay them.

The United States Department of Labor is the federal agency in charge of dealing with wage theft.

We obtained and and analyzed data from the department’s Wage and Hour Division.

Despite evidence from a series of lawsuits in states from Pennsylvania to Nebraska to California that this was a nationwide practice among Cargill plants, the division found just five examples of wage and hour violations during the past 62 years, according to our analysis.

The total values of fines levied?

$100,000?

Guess again.

$10,000.

Lower.

$0.

You’ve got it.

We contacted  department spokesman Scott Allen with a number of questions about why this was the case.  He assured us he would get back to us.

After we sent several emails, he sent us to Sonia Melendez, a spokeswoman in Washington, DC.

She asked where we had received the data and said she will get back to us with answers.  To help advance the process,  we sent documents from three different cases.

Given that this level of public enforcement didn’t appear to be working, workers’ other options include going to the courts.

This of course can be a risky affair.

To begin, many workers do not know their rights.  Those who do may have understandable trepidation about exercising them.

Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said  the company talks often with the union representing the workers and generally enjoys positive relations with the union and its employees.

But many workers may be aware of what McCafferty called the “use them and throw them away” mentality that he said appeared to be operating among management at many Cargill plants.

Nevertheless, thousands of current and former workers found it within themselves to sign up for a number of suits against Cargill.

The process generally takes years, according to McCafferty, and the workers did get a positive result.

Toward the end of last decade, Cargill agreed to pay $7.5 million as a settlement.

This sounds like, and is, a large sum of money, but the total given to individual workers gets smaller fast.

To begin, the lawyers take their fees and court costs.

The number of workers is in the thousands, so the pot is divided many ways.

And the income they receive is taxed.

Put that together, and you’ve  got a situation where settlements like the Cargill one are likely at most to yield three or four weeks pay per worker, according to McCafferty.

The veteran lawyer explained that he works hard to manage clients’ expectations and to tell them about the long they have to travel before ultimately receiving any compensation.

As a result, he said, clients are generally pleased with having received money.

The compensation for the previously unpaid wages does nothing of course for the workers who are injured at the plants due both to accidents and to meat packing’s repetitive nature.

And workers’ ability to file class action suits at the state level may be reduced in the months and years going forward.

That’s because there are lawyers and companies eager to build on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dukes, et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc..  In this case, the Court held that the differences in the treatment female employees at Walmart experienced in stores throughout the country meant that they could not be considered a class.

The consequence of the decision is that class action suits face a higher threshold than before, McCafferty said.

Another concern: in a number of states, workers don’t have the right to file class action suits at the state because there are no laws there on the books.

McCafferty praised Cargill for its reasonableness in resolving the donning and doffing issue after being confronted with the evidence and with adopting  more progressive and legal practices in their plants.

Smaller companies where there is no union and in states where there are no laws act more harshly, he said.

We’ll keep digging to tell you what that looks like.  In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you.

Does our enforcement system adequately protect workers?  Did the Department of Labor do enough in this situation?  Are the courts a sufficient means of checking companies’ practices?

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