WASHINGTON — Tyson Foods Inc. on Thursday settled a decade-long dispute with the Labor Department by agreeing to pay workers at poultry plants for time they spend putting on and taking off protective clothing.
Government officials hope the settlement with Tyson – and a similar agreement reached earlier this year with poultry processor Pilgrim's Pride Corp. – will set the standard for smaller processors nationwide.
Businesses and labor advocates have wrangled for years over whether workers must be paid for tasks such as donning and doffing sanitary gear before and after their shifts, walking to a work site, or waiting around time before the first work activity begins.
The Supreme Court, in a separate case, ruled in 2005 that such activities should be compensated, but many companies, including Tyson, said the full scope of the court's decision was not clear.
In a consent decree filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Ala., Tyson agreed to pay certain poultry workers for time changing into work clothes, washing and sanitizing themselves, as well as time spent waiting between tasks.
Under the agreement, the company will pay $500,000 in overtime back wages to nearly 3,000 workers at its Blountsville, Ala., plant.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the agreement means Tyson employees "will receive the full wages that they rightfully earn and deserve."
The Labor Department reached a similar agreement earlier this year with Pilgrim's Pride of Pittsburg, Texas. It had accused both companies – the nation's two largest poultry-processing companies – of violating federal law by not paying workers for all tasks.
Tyson admitted no wrongdoing under the consent decree, which affects up to 38,000 of its U.S. employees at poultry and certain prepared-food plants. The company has 117,000 workers worldwide.
"We've decided to resolve this case and modify our pay practices for certain jobs in order to avoid the continued expense and disruption of further litigation," said Ken Kimbro, senior vice president of human resources for Tyson Foods, headquartered in Springdale, Ark.