Lawyers suing Pilgrim’s Pride in Alabama said Wednesday’s roundup of undocumented employees at other company plants underscores their claims that the chicken-processing giant illegally is hiring immigrant workers to suppress wages.
“Assuming that these individuals being detained are found to be in this country illegally, I think it reinforces our contention that there has been an ongoing practice of employing illegal workers at Pilgrim’s Pride,” said Jeremy Hutchinson, a Little Rock, Ark., attorney who is soliciting plaintiffs for a potential class-action suit against the company.
Pilgrim’s Pride, the nation’s largest chicken company with more than 54,000 employees at 37 plants, insists it uncovered instances of identity theft and has worked with the federal government to verify employees’ citizenship and enforce immigration laws. Company spokesman Ray Atkinson said Pilgrim’s Pride “shares the government’s goal” of not employing illegal immigrants and fully cooperated in the 15-month-long investigation of identify theft by some of its workers.
“We do everything we can and use all the tools available to verify work authorization,” Mr. Atkinson said.
A federal grand jury in Tyler, Texas, returned indictments this month against 45 Pilgrim’s Pride employees, but the company is not charged with any civil or criminal charges, officials said. The indictments were sealed until Wednesday’s arrest of 280 foreign nationals in five states.
Chicago attorney Howard Foster, one of the lead attorneys in the civil action against Pilgrim’s Pride in Alabama, said the government’s actions “strengthen the merits of our case and adds credibility to what we are saying.”
Similar to other lawsuits filed against Tyson Foods and Mohawk Industries, Mr. Foster and other attorneys are trying to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law passed to fight organized crime. Under the law, they are suing employers for allegedly using illegal immigrants to cut their costs and reduce worker wages.
In a 21-page complaint filed in March, Mr. Foster and other lawyers said the use of illegal immigrants was saving Pilgrim’s Pride millions of dollars annually and that without such workers other employees would be paid “significantly higher” wages.
“This is because illegal immigrants will work for extremely low wages and in deplorable working conditions, which has been referred to as a form of modern-day indentured servitude,” Mr. Foster said.
The plaintiffs in such cases have not yet won any verdicts, although there was a $1.3 million settlement last year with the Zirkle Fruit Co. in Selah, Wash.
In the lawsuit filed against Pilgrim’s Pride in Alabama, an employee at the company’s Russellville, Ala., poultry plant is suing under RICO. He contends that Pilgrim’s Pride is depressing his wages by conspiring to hire undocumented workers at below-market wages through an “illegal immigrant hiring scheme.”
U.S. District Court Judge C. Lynwood Smith in Alabama has limited the civil action against Pilgrim’s Pride so far to the poultry processing plant in Russellville. But plaintiff attorneys hope eventually to widen the class-action suit to include other Southern plants, including Pilgrim Pride’s two Chattanooga plants.
Dozens of employees from other Pilgrim’s Pride plants already have agreed to join in any subsequent suit, Mr. Foster said.
“We’ve talked with many people and we continue to hear from workers about repeated instances of illegal workers being hired or retained,” he said. “We contend that the company knows that these employees are using stolen documents to get and keep their jobs.”
In a similar lawsuit against Tyson Foods in federal court in Chattanooga, Mr. Foster claimed that Tyson workers deserved another $25 million because of illegal use of undocumented workers. But U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Collier dismissed that lawsuit in February. Lawyers now are appealing the case.
Mr. Atkinson said Pilgrim’s Pride has employed outside experts to help with its immigration compliance and regularly audits its personnel and procedures to limit any illegal hiring activity. The company voluntarily has participated for the past couple of years in E-verify, the federal program designed to determine employment eligibility for all new hires.
But Mr. Atkinson said federal officials have acknowledged that E-Verify “cannot detect identity theft situations.”