2009: The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer
8/13/2009
ASNE Staff
Award for Local Accountability Reporting
Thursday, August 13, 2009
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Local Accountability Reporting


Charlotte Observer Team

Article list

The cruelest cuts: The human cost of bringing poultry to your table

February 10, 2008

In an industry rife with danger, House of Raeford Farms depicts itself as a safe place to work. Company records suggest relatively few workers are injured each year as they kill, cut and package millions of chickens and turkeys.

But an Observer investigation shows the N.C. poultry giant has masked the extent of injuries behind its plant walls.

The company has compiled misleading injury reports and has defied regulators as it satisfies a growing appetite for America's most popular meat. And employees say the company has ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job.

House of Raeford officials say they follow the law and strive to protect workers.

But company and government records and interviews with more than 120 current and former employees show:

  • House of Raeford's 800-worker plant in West Columbia, S.C., reported no musculoskeletal disorders over four years. Experts say that's inconceivable. MSDs, including carpal tunnel syndrome, are the most common work-related injuries afflicting poultry workers.
  • Its Greenville, S.C., plant has boasted of a five-year safety streak with no lost-time accidents. But the plant kept that streak alive by bringing injured employees back to the factory hours after surgery.
  • The company has broken the law by failing to record injuries on government safety logs, a top OSHA official says.
  • At four of the company's largest Carolinas plants, company first-aid attendants and supervisors have dismissed some workers' requests to see a doctor -- even when they complained of debilitating pain.

Companies have a financial incentive to hide injuries. Ignoring them lowers costs associated with compensating injured workers for medical care and lost wages.

Also, the government rewards companies that report low injury rates by inspecting them less often. And regulators rarely check whether companies are reporting accurately.

Government statistics show a decade-long decline in injuries among poultry workers. Critics say the numbers are misleading. They point to one government measure showing that employees in toy stores are more likely than poultry workers to develop musculoskeletal disorders.

Experts say that's implausible; poultry workers routinely make more than 20,000 cutting motions a shift, and the work often leaves them with nerve and muscle damage.

House of Raeford and other poultry companies depend heavily on workers' hands to turn thousands of birds each day into convenient cuts for restaurants, stores and cafeterias. Companies increasingly rely on Latino immigrants, who are often reluctant to complain for fear of being fired or deported.

House of Raeford says it looks out for the safety of workers and treats them with respect.

"We come to work with five fingers and toes," said company safety director Bill Lewis. "And we go home with the same thing we came in with."

The newspaper asked one of the federal government's top record-keeping experts to review House of Raeford's safety logs and what injured workers told the Observer. Bob Whitmore, who has directed the national injury and illness record-keeping system for the U.S. Labor Department since 1988, said he believes his agency has failed to protect poultry workers.

Whitmore was not authorized to comment for the government but said he felt compelled to speak on behalf of workers.

After reviewing the Observer's findings, he said, "This is violating the laws of human decency."

Growth comes with cost

House of Raeford isn't a household name.It has climbed from a backyard bird operation to one of the nation's top 10 poultry processors, helping make North Carolina the second-largest turkey producer. The company expanded turkey consumption beyond holiday dinner tables by creating new products, including deli-style breast meat and turkey "dinosaur" wings. It has grown by acquiring competitors and selling chicken parts overseas.

Its rise has come with a human cost.

Workers have been maimed by machines and poisoned by toxic chemicals. Two were killed in accidents managers might have prevented. Even more suffer from grueling, repetitive work that can leave their hands wracked with pain or missing fingers.

The company, based in Raeford in Eastern North Carolina, has been cited for 130 serious workplace safety violations since 2000 -- among the most of any U.S. poultry company.

In communities surrounding House of Raeford plants, the pain of poultry work can be found in aging trailer parks and clusters of weathered rental houses where sheets cover windows for privacy. Knee-high rubber boots spattered with chicken fat rest on stoops.

In Raeford, about 100 miles east of Charlotte, former line worker Claudette Outerbridge lay awake nights because of pain pulsating in her right hand. The ache, she said, stemmed from her work, which included cutting thousands of turkey gizzards each day.

During her more than five years at the plant, Outerbridge held a variety of jobs, including pulling out turkey guts and trimming parts. She said she moved from New York, where she worked as a police department clerk, and took a job at the plant in 1998.

She began visiting the first-aid station almost daily around 2002 to cope with the pain, she said. A first-aid attendant, she said, gave her a cream but performed no tests and refused her request to see a doctor.

She recalled times on the production line when her hand hurt so badly she dropped her scissors and cried.

"They'd say, `Oh, you're not hurting,' " Outerbridge said. "They made me feel that I was bothering them to go to the nurse, that I was supposed to take the pain."

When she told a plant manager she needed medical help, "He sat me down and he said, `I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do about it,' " recalled Outerbridge, now 48. "That day, I got a lawyer."

In 2003, she went on her own to a doctor, who diagnosed her with severe carpal tunnel syndrome and later performed surgery, she said. She settled a workers' compensation case with the company the following year for an undisclosed sum.

"I just wanted justice," she said. "I just wanted someone to take care of my hand."

House of Raeford said it can't discuss Outerbridge's case because the settlement is confidential.

Human resources director Gene Shelnutt said the privately held company considers its workers family. The company, he said, "would never allow anyone to mistreat anyone in the family. ... I believe we have provided the care for our employees that is expected."

Current and former human resources employees at two House of Raeford plants said the company finds reasons to fire injured workers.

Belem Villegas, a former employment supervisor at the Greenville plant, said her boss didn't like "repeat complainers."

For five years until spring 2005, Villegas hired workers and translated for Spanish-speaking employees. She shared an office with the plant medical director and said as many as 20 workers a day came in saying their hands, wrists and arms hurt.

She said she urged plant managers to send injured employees to a doctor, but they often refused. "They'd say, 'Belem, if they keep coming to the office, they're going to have to be let go.'"

Workers got the message. "You complain and you become unemployed," Villegas said.

House of Raeford didn't respond to questions about Villegas' allegations. The company said it fired her because she was "accepting money to provide employment favors to potential employees." Villegas denied the claim and said she believes she was fired, in part, because she started speaking up for workers.

The Observer interviewed more than 50 workers no longer employed at House of Raeford. Ten said they were fired after reporting injuries.

Company officials said workers are required to tell supervisors if they are hurt and that they will be sent to plant first-aid stations, or outside doctors if need be. They also noted that plants are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union and that its representatives have "full grievance procedures at their disposal." Local union officials said membership is less than 30 percent at some plants because immigrants are often reluctant to join, making it difficult to enact change.

"Certainly, we work hard to run a safe and healthy workplace, and to comply with all state and federal laws," Barry Cronic, complex manager of the Greenville plant, said in a written response. "...If any supervisor is discouraging employees from reporting injuries, that supervisor is in violation of company policy."

Carolina Cruz said her pleas for help were repeatedly ignored. A young mother, Cruz took a job at the Greenville plant in 2003 cutting chicken wings. After her hands started to throb, she said, she went to a company nurse who several times gave her ointment and sent her back to the line. "They don't help us at all," she said.

By the summer of 2006, she said, "My bones hurt .... If I continue like this, my hands are going to get to the point where I won't be able to do anything."

Cruz later left the plant.

House of Raeford declined to comment on many of the workers' specific allegations, saying that, without signed releases, it was unable to discuss details of their health or employment. In general, the company said it found "many inaccuracies" in the information workers provided to the Observer but declined to elaborate.

"The allegations made by these former employees do not fairly or accurately represent the policies or management practices of House of Raeford Farms," the company wrote.

Injuries not reported

If House of Raeford's records are accurate, the company in recent years has operated some of the nation's safest chicken and turkey plants.

Businesses are required to record most serious injuries and illnesses on U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration logs. But it's an honor system, and companies must give logs to regulators and employees only if asked. Regulators use the logs to spot troubling workplace safety trends.

The newspaper obtained four years of logs for company plants in Greenville, West Columbia and Raeford.

In a sampling of workers in neighborhoods surrounding the plants, the Observer confirmed 31 injuries serious enough to be recorded for regulators. In 12 of those cases, the injuries didn't show up on logs.

Seferino Guadalupe was driving a machine moving pallets of turkey breasts at one of the company's two Raeford plants in November 2006 when, he said, the brakes failed and he crashed into a wall. Surgeons inserted screws to repair his shattered ankle.

Bernestine Wright said her hands went numb after months of cutting chickens into bite-sized pieces at the Greenville plant. She said a company nurse refused to send her to a doctor when she complained about pains.

The pain grew so intense, she said, she visited a doctor and received painkillers. She was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in 2005, according to the law firm that represented her in a workers' compensation case.

Lucas Hernandez cut his arm with a knife in summer 2005 while on the production line at the West Columbia plant. He missed work the next two days because of pain, he said.

None of those injuries showed up on House of Raeford injury logs.

In addition to the 31 injuries the Observer confirmed, 10 more workers described serious injuries that weren't recorded, but the newspaper could not confirm their medical treatment.

Whitmore, the OSHA record-keeping expert, examined House of Raeford logs and details of the 41 injuries the Observer found. He concluded the company violated workplace safety law by failing to record more than half of those injuries.

"These are severe, serious, debilitating cases," Whitmore said.

Company officials said they follow OSHA rules for recording injuries, and are unaware of any work-related injuries being excluded from the logs. Lewis, the company's safety director, said he couldn't explain why Guadalupe's accident wasn't included and called it "an isolated case." He said the company has corrected its logs.

Company officials said Wright's allegations are inaccurate but wouldn't elaborate.

At the West Columbia plant, safety manager Mike Flowers said that because Hernandez stayed home on his own and did not call his supervisor, managers didn't know the extent of his injury. "There's a lot of gray area," Flowers said.

Nonsense, said Whitmore.

"The supervisor knew there was an injury. The person missed work and it was because of pain related to an injury," he said. "It was clearly recordable. Period."

Record-keeping questioned

Poultry plants are filled with hazards. On one side of the factory, employees grab live birds before hanging them upside down on moving hooks that whisk them off for slaughter. On the other side -- after the birds are scalded, plucked and chilled -- they're hurried along production lines where workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder wielding blades for hours with few breaks.Temperatures hover near freezing to prevent the spread of bacteria. Water drips off machinery, falling onto floors slick with chicken fat. The din of clanking conveyor belts makes conversation nearly impossible.

The conditions are ripe for musculoskeletal disorders, which afflict the muscles and nerves in wrists, arms, necks and backs. MSDs also include repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.

At the West Columbia plant, which employs 800, not a single musculoskeletal disorder was recorded from July 2003 to April 2007, according to the most current records obtained by the Observer.

Twelve employees who worked at the plant during that time said in interviews they suffered pains commonly brought on by MSDs. Two said they had surgery for carpal tunnel at company expense. Most of the others said they complained to company officials about their injuries but weren't sent to doctors or given time off from work -- steps that likely would have made their injuries recordable.

James Mabe, the complex manager, said he was unsure why his logs showed no musculoskeletal disorders.

Company officials said plant safety committees regularly look for hazards. Frequent knife sharpening, adjustable work stations and other safety measures contribute to low injury and illness rates, they said.

Mabe also said the plant recently spent $3.5 million for equipment that included a machine to remove guts from chickens, eliminating a highly repetitive job.

He offered another explanation: "Hispanics are very good with their hands and working with a knife. We've gotten less complaints."

Asked to elaborate, Mabe said, "It's more like a natural movement for them."

Tom Armstrong, a University of Michigan professor who has studied the prevalence of MSDs in poultry processing, questioned how Mabe arrived at his conclusion about Hispanics. "I know of absolutely no data to support that," he said.

Armstrong said it's highly unlikely a large poultry plant could go consecutive years without a case of carpal tunnel or tendinitis.

"I'd be skeptical of the record-keeping in a situation like that," he said.

Company fights in court

House of Raeford has a history of underreporting injuries.

In 1997, union leaders at a plant in Raeford received calls from workers complaining about injuries. Yet the plant was reporting one of the industry's lowest injury and illness rates -- 3.5 per 100 workers -- well below the industry average of 16.6.

The union looked closer and found the plant had crossed 159 names off its 1996 and 1997 injury logs.

State regulators investigated and found that 35 of those names had been crossed off with "plain indifference to the law." They could not confirm others because some of the workers had left the plant and could not be found.

Regulators designated the violation as "willful" -- the toughest category under OSHA rules -- and recommended a $9,000 fine. House of Raeford fought back. The state threw out the willful designation and reduced the fine to $800. House of Raeford says it has since established procedures "to prevent any further occurrences of the same nature."

Because House of Raeford reports some of the industry's lowest injury and illness rates, workplace safety officials rarely conduct random inspections at its plants.

Several times when inspectors did show up at one of the Raeford plants, managers refused to let them in.

Acting on a tip that workers were suffering injuries, regulators in 1999 began investigating. They spoke with 40 workers, many of whom complained of throbbing pain in their hands, arms and shoulders. More than a third had been diagnosed with repetitive motion problems.

One of the inspectors, J. D. Lewis, recalls seeing young workers who could no longer use their arms or hands properly. One couldn't lift his arms above his head, he recalled.

Inspectors wanted to talk with more workers, but House of Raeford officials repeatedly blocked them -- even when they arrived with a warrant. Company officials said the interviews would disrupt operations.

The case went to N.C. Superior Court, where Judge Jack Hooks ruled in late 2000 that the state had no authority to investigate further. His reason: Compliance deadlines for a new federal ergonomics standard had not yet kicked in.

Still suffering

A visit to the largely Latino communities surrounding the Raeford plants reveals the hidden cost of poultry work.A year after the accident that shattered his ankle, Guadalupe struggles to walk with crutches and said he is unable to work because of lingering pain.

Four houses down, Ernesto Ramirez, a House of Raeford sanitation worker, said he had blurred vision for three days in 2006 after chlorine splashed into his eyes from a loose hose at work.

Down the road, Guillermo Santiago had the top half of three fingers sheared off last February when he tried to jimmy loose a hose from a grinding machine. Doctors were able to reattach just one finger.

A native of Vera Cruz, Mexico, Santiago said he's reminded of his accident each time he looks at his hands.

"I'm never going to be the same."

-- Staff database editor Ted Mellnik and staff researchers Maria Wygand, Sara Klemmer and Marion Paynter contributed.

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A boss's view: Keep them working

February 12, 2008

The production lines rarely stopped.

An endless stream of raw chickens -- thousands an hour -- had to be sliced and cut into pieces for family dinner tables.

It was Enrique Pagan's job to keep his part of the line running.

He paced and often screamed at Mexicans and Guatemalans cutting chicken thighs. He demanded they move faster and scolded them when they left too much meat on the bone.

Pagan said most of his 90 workers in 2002 suffered hand and wrist pains. But he had production goals to meet. And he knew that workers wouldn't complain because many were in the country illegally.

"A lot of people didn't like me," he said.

Pagan (pronounced Puh-GAHN) had been hired in 1999 and promoted to supervisor about a year later when House of Raeford Farms' work force was in transition. By the early 2000s, Latinos had replaced most African Americans on production lines. The company needed supervisors who could lead and speak Spanish. Pagan could do both.

He described himself as a loyal employee, but he would come to question company tactics. He would confront both the pressure for profits in the billion-dollar poultry industry, and the suffering that resulted.

He said his bosses never told him to intimidate his fellow Latino workers but never reprimanded him for doing so. He says he didn't have a choice -- his job was at stake.

First impression

Pagan remembers the day he came to work. He had never seen anything like the Greenville chicken plant, known locally as Columbia Farms. It was almost the size of a soccer field.Inside the plant, hundreds of Latinos stood inches apart, wielding knives, cutting up thousands of chickens a shift.

It was cold, wet and noisy. Workers wore earplugs to protect their hearing from the clanking conveyor belts.

Pagan, then 47, and Lydia Torres, 34, had left Puerto Rico, where they were U.S. citizens, to "echarse adelante" -- a Spanish phrase meaning to succeed and get ahead. The couple moved to Buffalo, but after working odd jobs for a few years relocated to Greenville, where a Honduran friend told them the climate was warm and jobs were plentiful.

They were among the growing number of Latinos who found work in poultry plants throughout the Southeast, usually in the most dangerous jobs for the lowest pay.

Pagan drove a bus in Puerto Rico and made $100 to $250 a week. Now, he could make $300 a week at the processing plant cutting wings and thighs.

He was quick with a knife and scissors on the de-boning line. In just over a year, he was promoted to supervisor. That meant an extra $100 a week, he said. He would wear a hard hat signifying his new role as a boss.

Pressure to produce

Pagan's department was required to keep production levels between 150 to 160 birds a minute, about 70,000 a day, he remembers. No excuses.

If his workers fell behind, it was his job to make sure they caught up. If they could not get the work done in eight hours, they stayed overtime until they finished, he said.

Managers warned workers that the plant lost money every second the line slowed or stopped.

Upper management in white hard hats pushed production managers in red hard hats -- who pushed supervisors like Pagan, in orange hard hats. Workers received the brunt.

Latino workers were accustomed to their American bosses yelling at them. But what really hurt, several workers said, was the disparaging treatment by Latino supervisors who shared their background and understood the struggles of being an immigrant in the U.S.

One Guatemalan line worker, Miguel, said several supervisors treated fellow Latinos as if they were "desechables" or disposables.

"They treat you like you're not human," said Miguel, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of losing his job.

Barry Cronic, House of Raeford's complex manager in Greenville, said in a written response that "our supervisors were never asked to use fear and intimidation against our employees."

Pagan acquired a reputation as one of the toughest line supervisors, particularly with Guatemalan workers who often spoke Mayan dialects and knew little Spanish. He had a short temper and spoke rapidly when angry, workers recalled.

Former line worker Alberto Sosa called Pagan abusive and once confronted him in a storage area after he berated a Guatemalan for working too slowly. You don't have to treat people that way, Sosa remembers saying.

Pagan said he didn't recall the incident, but didn't deny it.

The workers, he said, didn't understand that missed production goals could cost him his job.

A wife's warning

Torres never wanted Pagan to be a supervisor.All day, knife in hand, Torres made hundreds of cuts an hour. After about six months, her hands began to hurt. She said a supervisor screamed at her to work faster even after she complained about being in pain.

At home she had trouble cooking and cleaning. She couldn't open jars.

Torres' hands worsened. She would awake with her hands curled in a claw. The company sent her to a doctor who diagnosed her with carpal tunnel, she said. She had surgery. She went back to work, but left several months later because of the pain, she said.

Torres worried Pagan would become like her supervisor, who often scolded her. But Pagan dismissed her concerns. He said she just had a bad boss. He would never be like that.

Touched by pain

Veronica Zapot worked on Pagan's line. She was a quiet, petite woman who kept her head down. But in 2001, she began to complain about her hands. Pagan conceded the work was difficult, but if she wanted the job she would need to keep up, he said.

He later learned Zapot, then 30, lived a few blocks from his apartment. She told him about coming to the Carolinas from Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. She told him about her life as a single mother, and the challenges of raising children in the U.S.

He later invited Zapot to leave her baby with Torres, who was then taking care of several workers' children for extra money.

Pagan watched as Zapot struggled. She de-boned 200 to 300 chicken thighs an hour. Eventually, she said, the fingers of her hand locked into a claw -- the way Torres' had. Unable to straighten them, she said she would have to tilt her hand to let the knife slip out.

"She'd come to me. She'd be holding her wrists," Pagan said. "You could see it in her eyes that she was in pain."

He sent her to the first-aid attendant, who gave Zapot over-the-counter pain pills and a bandage, suggesting her throbbing hands came from cooking at home.

"She'd say, `You Mexicans, you make so many tortillas,' " Zapot said.

When Zapot visited a doctor on her own, she said she learned she had tendinitis. She later had surgery and won a worker's compensation settlement, according to her attorneys.

"The tendons in my fingers were in knots," she said.

House of Raeford declined to comment on many of the employees' specific allegations, saying that, without signed releases, it was unable to discuss details of their health or employment. In general, the company said it found "many inaccuracies" in the information workers provided to the Observer but declined to elaborate.

"The allegations made by these former employees do not fairly or accurately represent the policies or management practices of House of Raeford Farms," the company wrote. ... "We value our employees and strive to treat them in a fair and respectful manner at all times."

`Tell them to wait'

Pagan said he worried about his workers, but giving them breaks left him with fewer hands on the line. A boss once admonished Pagan for sending workers to the first-aid station, he said.Three other ex-supervisors and a former human resources employee similarly described a culture where supervisors dismissed employee's complaints. Caitlyn Davis, who worked in the human resources department until she quit in July, said one supervisor referred to his Latino assistants as "Thing 1" and "Thing 2."

Another former supervisor told the Observer: "They tell you to not let people off the line. `To wait. To wait. Tell them to wait until the break. Tell them to wait until someone else can replace them. Tell them to wait until after work.' It's always to wait. The pain doesn't wait."

The supervisor said he was fired after receiving three or four reprimands, the last for a safety violation. He requested his name not be used because he still has relatives working for the company.

Cronic, the Greenville complex manager, said in a written response, "If any supervisor is discouraging employees from reporting injuries, that supervisor is in violation of company policy."

New pressure

In 2004, four years after becoming a supervisor, Pagan woke up in a sweat. It was about 2 a.m. He was shaking.

Torres asked what was wrong. He said a boss was increasing the pressure on supervisors.

My stomach's tied in knots, he said. I don't know how long I can stay.

Torres said he often came home angry. He became detached. He lost his sense of humor. It affected their sex life.

"I didn't have any will to do anything," Pagan said.

In early 2005, good news came. A social worker told the couple that a family had offered a baby for adoption.

Pagan had four children from a previous marriage. Torres had none and did not want to go through infertility treatments she needed to become pregnant.

Three days later, on Feb. 14, they brought Bryant home. He was four days old and weighed less than 9 pounds.

"He was the tiniest thing," Torres said.

The couple knew that social workers would visit the family regularly to check on Bryant's progress. They would want to know that the boy was being well cared for and that the family had the financial means to support the child. It would be two years before Bryant would be officially theirs.

Pagan needed his job more than ever.

Final conflict

Pagan was overseeing more than 100 workers.He quietly began to warn some about their hands. He allowed more first-aid breaks.

After work, mothers would come to Pagan's home to pick up their children from Torres. They would often complain about their hands. Several, like Carolina Cruz, did not have the hand strength to hold their children. Cruz relied on her forearms to lift and hug her young son, Jose.

Pagan said he felt bad for the workers but angry at them for enduring the pain. He never advised them to quit because he knew their families needed the money. But he encouraged them to look for other jobs.

"You shouldn't do this work," he recalls telling them. "You'll ruin your hands.

"Look at Veronica. Look at Lydia. She can't even brush her hair."

Pagan said he was meeting his production goals in early 2006, but was being blamed more for workers' mistakes.

A boss pulled him into an office, he said, and reprimanded him for leaving too much meat on the floor.

Pagan said he was told to sign a disciplinary note for his personnel file. He was being punished, he believed, for giving workers too many breaks.

He refused to sign and walked out.

`I'll never go back'

Torres gave their dining room table to a niece. Pagan sold his car to a friend. They took most of the pictures off the wall, but left U.S. and Puerto Rican flags hanging in the living room. They packed their belongings into 40 boxes and shipped them to Puerto Rico.

Pagan said he planned to buy a used bus and hoped to get a public route again.

Before leaving, he made one last visit to the plant. He walked along one of the wooded trails lined with discarded gloves and hairnets. He stopped near a picnic table and spoke about his former job.

He had hoped for more when he came to Greenville. He and Torres did make enough money to buy a four-room house in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, and they adopted their son, Bryant.

But he said he'll never forget how Latinos were treated at the poultry plant -- and how he felt forced to treat them. Did he have a choice? No, he says, not if he wanted to keep his job.

"I'll never go back," he said.

Moments later, a man with a red hard hat walked out a plant door. Pagan took a long look. It was one of his former bosses.

"We should go before he says something," he said.

Pagan turned away from the poultry plant and walked back up the path.

Epilogue

In August, Pagan and Torres moved back to Puerto Rico.

Torres stays home with Bryant. Pagan drives a bus again.

"I feel good here," he says. "I have family. The only thing is, you don't make much money to save."

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Some managers knew workers were illegal, former employees say

February 12, 2008

Illegal immigrants say it's easy to get a job at House of Raeford Farms.

Of 52 current and former Latino workers at House of Raeford who spoke to the Observer about their legal status, 42 said they were in the country illegally.

Company officials say they hire mostly Latino workers but don't knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

But five current and former House of Raeford supervisors and human resource administrators, including two who were involved in hiring, said some of the company's managers know they employ undocumented workers.

"If immigration came and looked at our files, they'd take half the plant," said Caitlyn Davis, a former Greenville, S.C., plant human resources employee.

Former Greenville supervisors said the plant prefers undocumented workers because they are less likely to question working conditions for fear of losing their jobs or being deported.

In the early 1990s, when another company owned the Greenville plant, most workers were African Americans. Now, most are Latino.

"We can only hire those who apply to work for us, and at the moment between 85 percent and 90 percent of our job applicants are Latino," said Greenville complex manager Barry Cronic in a written response.

Handling IDs

Federal immigration law requires little of companies when checking applicants' IDs. Employers don't have to verify workers' immigration status or check that their IDs are valid. Instead, companies must accept applicants' documents if they "reasonably appear to be genuine."Davis, the former Greenville human resources employee, said she was told not to examine actual IDs when hiring, but instead to copy the IDs, then review the black-and-white images. She said some Latino applicants provided discolored Permanent Resident Cards, but such flaws did not show up in the black-and-white copies.

"We knew for a fact that some of the IDs were fake," said Davis, who worked at the plant for two years until this past summer.

If questioned by authorities, the company could show copies of the IDs, which appeared authentic, she said.

Cronic, the Greenville complex manager, said the plant examines all documents as presented and makes copies only for its records.

"All Human Resource personnel are trained to examine documents," he wrote. "We are not document experts."

Workers from House of Raeford's plants in Raeford, Greenville and West Columbia, S.C., spoke to the Observer about their status. Some said House of Raeford questioned worker IDs less than other employers. One worker said he got a job at the same plant twice using different names and IDs.

House of Raeford's Carolinas plants do not participate in a free federal program that allows companies to verify applicants' Social Security numbers, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

"It is a common misconception that the employer must check social security numbers of applicants or employees in order to determine their immigration status," Cronic said in a written response.

Former poultry worker Jose Lopez told the Observer he used fake documents to get work at the Greenville plant. He said family and friends from Guatemala told him that there were good-paying poultry jobs in the Carolinas, even for illegal immigrants who didn't speak English.

In 2004, he paid a smuggler $3,000 to guide him on a two-week journey across the desert and into Arizona before catching a series of buses. He said $100 bought him a fake Permanent Resident Card and Social Security number, which he says he used to get his job.

Industry of undocumented

It's unclear how many illegal immigrants work in the poultry industry. One 2006 study estimated more than a quarter of meat-processing workers nationwide are undocumented. Some experts say even more work in poultry because its jobs are less skilled.

A 900-employee Crider poultry plant in Stillmore, Ga., lost 75 percent of its mostly Latino work force during September 2006 immigration raids. No Carolina poultry plants have been raided in the past five years, according to immigration officials.

House of Raeford's West Columbia plant stopped production when about 10 percent of its work force did not show up during a May 1, 2006, national boycott calling on Congress to support efforts to legalize undocumented workers.

James Mabe, the West Columbia complex manager, said 90 percent of the 800-person plant is Latino and turnover exceeds 100 percent a year. Many workers, he said, stay for six months and then return to Mexico. They may or may not come back, he said.

Mabe said the company in 2006 hired an Atlanta law firm that completed an audit and found the plant was in compliance with federal requirements.

Asked if the company hires illegal immigrants, he said: "Not that I know of."

Changing work force

Hundreds of Latino poultry workers live in mobile homes and apartments near the Greenville plant. "Welcome to Yuxquen" was spray-painted in black letters across one apartment complex driveway, referring to a community in Northern Guatemala.Workers walk to the plant along wooded paths littered with torn aprons, gloves and hairnets.

Over a decade ago, pockets of the neighborhood were predominantly African American, former workers said. But as the plant hired more Latinos, those employees displaced many blacks in their jobs and later in their homes.

Experts have long debated whether illegal immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens, or take jobs U.S. citizens don't want.

Former union steward Joann Sullivan said the number of Latinos increased at the Greenville plant after House of Raeford bought it from Columbia Farms in 1998. She said Latinos replaced many of her African American colleagues.

"You were seeing Hispanics coming in and no blacks," said Sullivan, an African American who worked at the plant for more than 20 years. Soon, she said, Hispanics were being promoted over blacks with more experience.

Some African Americans in neighborhoods near the plant said they came to believe blacks wouldn't be hired there.

The work force change was no accident, said Belem Villegas, a former employment supervisor at the Greenville plant. She said a plant manager told her in 2001 to stop hiring African Americans.

"They want people who do not complain," said Villegas, who handled much of the hiring until she was fired in 2005 after about five years at the plant. "It's a benefit to them to be in control. To have them illegal."

Cronic declined to answer questions about Villegas' allegations. But he said, "It is the law of supply and demand, not discrimination that has led to us having today a work force that is predominantly Latino."

The company said it fired Villegas because she was "accepting money to provide employment favors to potential employees." Villegas denies the claim and says she believes she was fired, in part, because she started speaking up for workers.

When problems arise, illegal immigrants often won't pursue typical avenues of recourse, such as joining unions or hiring attorneys, because they fear exposing themselves to greater risks.

Villegas, who was born in Texas, said some company managers would hold the workers' immigration status over their heads if they complained too much. One manager kept a list of illegal immigrants who could be fired if they caused problems, Villegas said.

"They don't play fair," she said. "They knew they had the upper hand."

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Workers say they're denied proper medical care

February 13, 2008

Mike Flowers is a powerful gatekeeper. He often decides whether to send poultry workers to a doctor when they get hurt on the job or complain of chronic pain.

"I think we do a pretty good job of taking care of these folks," said Flowers, who treats workers at the House of Raeford Farms plant in West Columbia, S.C.

Ernestina Ruiz thinks otherwise.

In 2006, after months of de-boning thousands of chicken breasts each day, her hands and wrists began to hurt. She complained to Flowers at least three times, she said, but each time he gave her pain relievers or a bandage and sent her back to work.

" `You're going to be fine,' " she recalled him saying.

A large lump grew on her left wrist. The pain got so bad, she said, she went to a private doctor and had surgery.

Day after day, poultry workers are cut by knives, burned by chemicals or hurt by repetitive work, according to dozens of injury logs compiled by plants across the South.

Because many workers are illegal immigrants and can't afford private care, their health rests largely with company medical workers.

Those in-house attendants are supposed to help workers heal. Instead, some have prevented workers from receiving medical care that would cost the company money, an Observer investigation has found. And in some instances, the treatments they provide can do more harm than good.

At House of Raeford, some health care workers lack medical credentials. At least two came to their jobs with felony records.

House of Raeford officials said they staff plants with trained personnel who use accepted first-aid practices to handle minor injuries. Workers needing advanced care are referred to doctors, the company said.

"I believe we have provided the care for our employees that's expected," said Gene Shelnutt, the company's human resources director.

In communities near House of Raeford's four largest plants in the Carolinas, more than 30 workers told the Observer that company medical attendants did little to help them when they suffered injuries or complained of pain. More than a dozen, including Ruiz, said those attendants refused their requests to see a doctor.

Ruiz, who began working at the West Columbia plant around 2000, said her hands were hurting after she was moved to the de-boning line, where workers make thousands of cutting and grasping motions each day.

She recalled how sharp pains shot through her hands and wrists each time she grabbed a piece of chicken streaming down the production line.

Medical experts say cysts like the one that grew on Ruiz's wrist often result from repetitive work.

Flowers told the Observer that Ruiz never asked him to see a doctor. And the company had no proof her injury was work-related, he said, noting that the cyst wasn't on her dominant hand.

Ruiz said she used both hands on the de-boning line.

In interviews last year, Ruiz said her hands still ached. She said she could no longer tie her children's shoes, and when she lifted her 1-year-old daughter, she did it with one arm.

"I can't hug her with two hands," she said. "It's not the same."

The cost of care

Companies aren't required to provide on-site medical staff, but many poultry plants have employed them for decades.In an industry known for the pain it inflicts on workers' hands, deciding when to send employees to doctors can have far-reaching effects.

Companies must compensate workers if they are injured on the job and require a doctor's treatment or can't work. Productivity suffers.

When injured workers require treatment beyond first aid, employers also must record those injuries on federal logs; too many injuries can draw scrutiny from workplace safety inspectors.

In this environment, medical gatekeepers can often face a choice: provide workers with the care they need or save the company money.

One House of Raeford worker with carpal tunnel syndrome said a first-aid attendant blamed her hand pain on driving a five-speed car. Another with tendinitis recalled a company nurse saying her pain resulted not from cutting thousands of chickens each day but from a previous case of meningitis.

Doctors say they've heard the stories, too.

Dr. Jorge Garcia, a physician in Newberry, S.C., has treated about 1,000 poultry workers from House of Raeford and two other companies in the past seven years. In about half the cases, he said, the workers' conditions deteriorated because they didn't see a doctor quickly enough.

"They won't send people to a doctor for a week or two or three until the problem gets worse," Garcia said. "I hear that probably 90 percent of the time. By the time they come to me ... they're not getting any better."

`Not the same hand'

Help came too late for former House of Raeford worker Celia Lopez.

Lifting and weighing thousands of turkey breasts each day at a House of Raeford plant near Fayetteville, her hands began to hurt so badly she could barely keep working, she said.

She said she complained to a company first-aid attendant, who gave her pain relievers but didn't send her to a doctor. Months later, in 2006, she saw Harry Cross, a physician assistant on contract with House of Raeford who gave her more pain relievers but recommended no further treatment or testing for her hands, she said.

Lopez went to an independent clinic months later and was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome -- a debilitating hand ailment that can be caused and aggravated by repetitive work. Last year, she had surgeries on both hands to correct the problem.

Dr. Stanley Gilbert, who performed the operations, said that by the time Lopez came to him, her injuries were already serious. Had she come sooner, he said, treatment might have prevented the need for surgery.

"If you don't treat it early enough, you can have permanent damage to the nerve," the Fayetteville doctor told an Observer reporter who accompanied Lopez on a follow-up visit last summer.

It's unclear whether the damage to Lopez's hands is permanent, Gilbert said.

Lopez said she still had trouble lifting dishes and changing her grandson's diapers. Sitting in Gilbert's office, she stared at her hands and lamented the damage: "My left hand -- it's not the same hand."

Asked about Lopez's case last year, House of Raeford said it couldn't comment because she'd hired an attorney. Cross didn't respond to questions about her case.

Lopez, who worked under the name Milagro, was charged last summer with identity theft; police say she assumed another woman's name and Social Security number to get a job.

House of Raeford also declined to comment on the cases of other workers who complained about plant medical care, saying that, without signed releases, it was unable to discuss details of their health or employment. The company said it found "many inaccuracies" in the information workers provided to the Observer but declined to elaborate.

"The allegations made by these former employees do not fairly or accurately represent the policies or management practices of House of Raeford Farms," the company wrote.

Big job, little training

When N.C. OSHA investigated injuries at one House of Raeford plant in 1999 and 2000, it concluded that company policies were inhibiting workers from seeking medical care.The inspectors were trying to determine why many workers at one of the company's plants in Raeford were suffering from injuries commonly caused by repetitive motion.

"We were concerned they weren't going to get the medical treatment, and their symptoms were going to be ignored and just made worse," J.D. Lewis, the state's lead inspector in the case, told the Observer.

In court documents, regulators said a first-aid attendant at the plant had "no special training for the position" and was not licensed as a health care provider or even certified in first aid. Yet the attendant was responsible for evaluating injured workers, treating them and deciding whether to send them to licensed medical providers, the state said.

The state dropped the case in late 2000 after Superior Court Judge Jack Hooks refused to let regulators interview hundreds of workers inside the plant. The judge said inspectors had no authority to investigate further because compliance deadlines for new ergonomics rules had not yet kicked in.

Today, at a neighboring House of Raeford plant, the job of treating and evaluating workers falls to Theodocia Richardson.

Her only formal health care training consists of a daylong CPR class each year, she said.

Still, she said, experience has taught her a lot. Twenty years ago, the company moved her from a job on the production floor to the first-aid station. She said she picked up many of her skills from another company first-aid attendant.

"I don't know where she got hers from, but I got mine from her," Richardson said.

She said she never provides more than basic first aid, but she can call Cross, the physician assistant on contract with the company, if she encounters a situation that's "over my limit."

The company says it follows the plans prescribed by doctors.

"We value our employees and strive to treat them in a fair and respectful manner at all times," the company said in a written response.

`Not right all the time'

At the West Columbia plant, some workers think Mike Flowers is a doctor.

Flowers, the plant's health and safety manager, isn't a doctor -- or even a nurse.

He previously worked as a paramedic -- which requires about a year of training -- and as a deputy coroner. After going to work at the plant in the early 1990s, he said, he also received training on injuries and safety hazards common in poultry factories.

Flowers said he has never represented himself as a doctor, but noted that a receptionist once called him "Dr. Mike" and the name stuck.

"With my experience, I'm able to handle a lot of issues," he said during an interview last year.

Five workers told the Observer that when they complained to Flowers about injuries or persistent pain, he told them they were fine or sent them back to the line after giving them bandages or pain relievers.

Asked whether he ever refused to send workers to a doctor, Flowers said: "I may have, but I say they can go on their own, and if the doctor decides it's work-related, they can bring the bill and I'll file the claim."

But going to a doctor on their own isn't always an option. Some workers can't afford the company's health insurance or treatment from a private doctor. Others are illegal immigrants who fear they'll be fired or deported if they seek medical help.

When employees complain about pain, Flowers asks about their work and medical history and talks with their supervisors before deciding what to do, he said.

"You have to make a decision," he said. "I'm not right all the time, but I'm certainly not wrong all the time."

While carpal tunnel syndrome is common among poultry workers, Flowers' plant didn't record a single case from mid-2003 to early 2007.

Flowers described a test he uses to determine whether workers under his care suffer from carpal tunnel: The thumb, forefinger and middle finger of one hand must all be numb.

Five doctors not associated with House of Raeford criticized that test, telling the Observer it would fail to catch many serious cases of carpal tunnel.

"That's crazy," said Dr. Paul Perlik, a Charlotte hand surgeon. "...If you isolate your diagnosis to that, you could miss a whole lot of stuff."

Questionable treatments

At House of Raeford and other poultry companies, first-aid workers sometimes provide treatments that may harm workers more than help them.Some attendants, for instance, have dipped workers' aching hands in hot wax or water.

Doctors say the heat momentarily eases pain but can cause inflamed tendons and tissues to swell more.

One worker at House of Raeford's Greenville, S.C., plant said that when he awakes, the fingers of his left hand are often locked into a half fist. The worker, who asked not to be named because he fears losing his job, said he must pull each finger straight. The pain, he said, feels like pulsating needles.

When he visited the company first-aid station, he said, "all they give you is cream, maybe dunk your hand in hot water ... and send you back to the line."

A company nurse refused to send him to a doctor, he said. But he went on his own and was told he was developing carpal tunnel.

"I can put my hand in hot water at home," the worker said. "What do I need a nurse for?"

The nurse at the Greenville plant declined to comment. She is a licensed practical nurse trained in ergonomics, said complex manager Barry Cronic.

"If an employee has even a slight injury or discomfort, (she) takes aggressive medical management to relieve symptoms before a little problem becomes a big problem," Cronic said in a written response to Observer questions.

Trouble with the law

The Observer discovered that two medical workers responsible for the health care of plant employees have criminal records.

Steffeny Harris came to House of Raeford with a record dating to the early 1980s, including felony convictions for forgery and obtaining property under false pretenses. In 1997, she pleaded guilty to misappropriating more than $2,000 from an 84-year-old resident at an assisted living home she ran in Greenwood, S.C.

Soon afterward, she responded to a newspaper ad and was hired as medical director at House of Raeford's Greenville plant. Trained as a certified nursing assistant, Harris said she felt well-equipped to handle the job.

During her time at the plant, from the late 1990s until 2002, Harris said she treated about 50 workers who complained of sore hands and wrists and sent about 15 to a doctor. She referred those workers to physicians only if they complained more than twice, she said.

She said she learned to distinguish between employees who truly needed help and those simply seeking a break from work.

"You can just tell," Harris said.

She said a manager at the plant once summoned her to his office shortly after she was hired and asked why she was sending so many workers to the doctor.

She said she explained that workers were getting hurt.

The manager, she said, told her it was her job to keep workers from going to the doctor.

Harris said she continued to send workers to the doctor if she believed they needed to go.

In a letter to the Observer, Cronic, the complex manager, said: "We absolutely have no recall of such a conversation."

Cross, the physician assistant who has treated House of Raeford workers, also has had trouble with the law.

In 2002, he was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for submitting false Medicare claims. Among other things, he was accused of submitting bills for examining patients who had already died.

His medical license was reinstated in 2004, after he was released from prison and paid restitution. As of last year he was under contract to provide medical care for House of Raeford workers.

He declined to be interviewed at length but said his criminal record isn't relevant to his work today. "All I'm trying to do is help people on a daily basis," he said.

Shelnutt, House of Raeford's human resources director, said the company didn't know about Cross' criminal record until recently. However, he said, that record "had nothing to do with the treatment of patients.

"I believe people deserve a second chance," he said.

-- Staff writer Karen Garloch and researchers Maria Wygand, Sara Klemmer and Marion Paynter contributed.

Article list

Pain behind safety streak

February 14, 2008

Cornelia Vicente was packing chicken tenders at House of Raeford Farms' plant in 2003 when a conveyor belt snagged her hand, snapped her right arm and ripped off the tip of her index finger.

Maintenance workers struggled to free her, and paramedics rushed her to a hospital.

Hours after surgery, Vicente recalled, a House of Raeford nurse who had come to the hospital gave her some news: She was expected back at the plant early the next day.

The following morning, managers put Vicente to work wiping down tables and handing out supplies, she said.

When she asked for time off, she said, the nurse said no.

"So, of course, I stayed so I didn't lose my job or my salary," Vicente said.

The nurse declined to be interviewed for this series.

House of Raeford boasts that its Greenville plant has gone more than 7 million hours without a "lost-time accident," meaning no worker has been injured badly enough to miss an entire shift. But according to the company's own safety logs, Vicente was among at least nine workers at the plant who suffered amputated fingers or broken bones -- all during the time the plant claimed to have millions of safe working hours dating back to 2002.

Managers have kept the streak alive by requiring injured workers to return to the plant -- in some cases hours after medical procedures.

The Observer located four of the nine workers; three said supervisors denied them time off to recuperate. Because none missed a complete shift, the company kept its streak intact.

A plant the size of Greenville's, which employs roughly 700 workers, can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in workers' compensation costs by returning injured workers to their jobs quickly, insurance experts say. By reporting fewer lost-time accidents, a company also can reduce the likelihood of workplace safety inspections.

Caitlyn Davis, a former human resource administrator who quit in July, said injured employees often were required to work.

"People get hurt all the time," she said. "They (managers) just put them in the office to pass out supplies."

House of Raeford did not respond to specific allegations that it sometimes required injured employees to return to work.

"Employees are returned to light duty and to full duty on doctor's orders," Greenville complex manager Barry Cronic said in a written response to Observer questions.

Asked whether the company was motivated by workers' compensation costs, Cronic replied: "We followed doctor's orders on every case."

`I wanted to be at home resting'

Vicente's accident occurred months after she arrived in the United States in 2003 from her native Guatemala. She took a job in the chicken plant, she said, to support her parents and two children.Vicente said she was groggy from medication so didn't question the House of Raeford nurse when she told her to return to work the next day. She said she went back wearing a cast, her arm in a sling.

"It was very, very strong pain," she said. "My whole arm was swollen. I lost three fingernails."

After days of wiping down tables and passing out supplies, Vicente said, managers told her to sweep, a task she described as impossible given her broken arm.

"I wanted to be at home resting," she said.

Belem Villegas, an employment supervisor who left the plant in 2005, said she remembers Vicente sitting in the office looking "sad and depressed." She said Vicente occasionally asked for permission to go home.

"I'd have to say no," Villegas recalled. "(Managers) wouldn't let people go home."

The company recorded Vicente's broken arm -- but not the amputated finger -- on injury and illness logs as required by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Those logs show she was placed on light duty for 64 days.

Because she didn't miss a complete work shift, her injury was not counted as a lost-time accident.

Doctors contacted by the Observer said patients who suffer fractures and amputations need initial time to heal before returning to work.

House of Raeford did not respond to questions about Vicente. In workers' compensation documents, the company said it returned her to work following her doctor's orders.

The doctor who treated her, John Millon, declined to comment.

The company fired Vicente seven months after her accident after learning through a workers' compensation case that she is an illegal immigrant. A judge ruled in 2006 that Vicente was entitled to additional workers' compensation benefits because her injury limited her ability to work.

A petite woman with long black hair that brushes her waist, Vicente hides her hand when talking with strangers.

In late September, she was unemployed. Her arm still burned, she said, and she couldn't fully move it. She said she can't do many things she once did, such as braid her hair. She avoids escalators, she said, because they remind her of the accident.

"I'm still scared of all the machines."

A tragedy in 2001

House of Raeford's safety streak was preceded by tragedy.

Longtime plant worker Jerome Sullivan had the sort of job few wanted -- operating an auger at the Greenville plant that disposed of chicken feathers.

The auger is a spiral-shaped shaft resembling a drill bit. Sullivan's job took him up on a catwalk overlooking the massive machine, which transported feathers into waiting tractor trailers.

About midway through Sullivan's shift on Dec. 15, 2001, an employee noticed what appeared to be blood coming from the auger, according to S.C. OSHA documents. Another employee climbed onto the catwalk, peered down, and saw Sullivan's body wrapped around the auger shaft.

Sullivan had died after falling into the machine, his body ripped to shreds, according to the autopsy report.

The report also showed that Sullivan had too much alcohol in his system to legally drive a car.

Inspectors found that Sullivan was not wearing a harness and that the catwalk had inadequate safety railings. They also noted that the auger was missing its protective guard.

Shortly after Sullivan's death, plant managers ordered repairs on equipment throughout the plant, former workers and supervisors told the Observer.

"Stuff started getting fixed left and right," Villegas said. "There were safety committee meetings constantly."

Safety milestones were marked by parties, where managers handed out T-shirts and sweatshirts imprinted with the plant's safety mascot, a rooster named Strut McClucker. Managers also awarded $10 and $25 gift certificates to employees in a free drawing. At a party in November 2006, managers cooked and served free hot dogs for employees on their lunch breaks.

None of the seven former supervisors who spoke with the Observer was told to lie about accidents, they said. But in the aftermath of Sullivan's death, some said, plant managers became more focused on eliminating lost-time accidents.

Villegas said her boss, human resources director Elaine Crump, told her lost-time accidents would increase workers' compensation costs.

Crump declined to comment for this article.

The plant fired Villegas in spring 2005, alleging she was "accepting money to provide employment favors to potential employees." Villegas denies those claims. She said she was forced out after speaking up for injured workers, including Vicente.

About six months after Sullivan's death, the Greenville plant had begun its safety streak, which by last summer had topped 7 million safe hours.

Former line worker Alberto Sosa still has a T-shirt he received at one of the parties. It reads: "4,000,000 hours without a lost-time accident."

"It's a lie," said Sosa, who said he suffered from wrist and hand pains when he worked on the line de-boning chickens. "It's a party for no accidents, but there are accidents."

Injuries affect costs

Few things affect a company's workers' compensation costs more than lost-time injuries. Workers' compensation, a form of insurance that most employers are required to carry, pays medical expenses for workers hurt on the job, as well as a portion of wages when they're unable to work.When companies record injuries and illnesses on their logs, they must include how many days injured employees spend away from work or on light duty. It's an honor system, and companies aren't required to share the information with regulators unless asked.

According to those logs, the Greenville plant averaged 30 injuries a year between 2002 and 2006. All were serious enough to require medical treatment beyond first aid or a transfer to light duty. But only two resulted in time away from work, records show, and those occurred before the company's safety streak began in mid-2002.

Petrona Agustin suffered the kind of injury that can drive up a company's cost for workers' compensation.

On June 11, 2003, the tip of her left little finger was severed when it got caught in a machine used to clean chicken gizzards. She said a company employee drove her to a hospital, where she had surgery.

Immediately after, Agustin was driven back to the plant to fill out paperwork so she could be moved to the day shift, she recalled. The next morning, she was back at work.

She spent more than a month passing out supplies and wiping down tables in the break room, becoming depressed and crying often at the thought of her lost finger, she told the Observer.

She said she would have gladly taken time off but said a company supervisor told her no. "I didn't want to work," said Agustin. "I was worried it would happen again."

House of Raeford wouldn't comment specifically about Agustin, citing medical confidentiality, but said her account "does not represent the full story."

"Any and all accidents are regrettable," the company said. "House of Raeford Farms, Inc. depends upon the advice of local doctors to let us know when an employee is eligible to work, and we abide by these doctors' orders."

Company logs show Agustin spent 47 days on light duty. As of September, she still worked at the plant.

She sometimes wears a prosthesis -- a fake fingertip -- colored to match her skin tone. She said she wears it to parties so she doesn't have to explain what happened.

"I was very sad. I couldn't look at my hands," she said. "I was embarrassed. I could never get my finger back."

Unhealthy practice?

Consultants who advise employers on ways to save money on workers' compensation costs say they sometimes recommend injured workers return to the workplace quickly. The sooner they are brought back, the consultants say, the sooner they are likely to resume their regular jobs.

A quick return can boost morale and speed recovery, they say. It also can help maintain their income, because workers receive partial pay when out on disability.

But several doctors who spoke to the Observer were skeptical of returning workers too quickly.

Dr. Blake Moore, who lives in Columbia, and has treated dozens of poultry workers, said bringing seriously injured workers back immediately "borders on reckless disregard."

Dr. Franco Godoy said it's inappropriate to bring employees back immediately following surgeries for fractures or amputations.

"The surgery has to heal first," said Godoy, who has treated roughly 100 poultry workers since joining the Emmanuel Family Clinic in Newberry, S.C., two years ago.

Neither Moore nor Godoy treated any of the workers named in this article.

In April 2004, paramedics were called to the Greenville plant after a man fainted. He'd had surgery the previous day to repair an elbow he broke in a fall at work, EMS records show.

The injured man had returned to work and was sitting in the plant's medical office reading magazines, according to the EMS report. He became sick after being given a dose of OxyContin, a powerful painkiller, which his doctor had prescribed, the report said.

Paramedics said the worker was "very upset." He and the plant's staff disagreed about whether his doctor had cleared him to return.

"Patient kept saying that he just wanted to go home," the paramedics wrote in their report after taking the man to a hospital.

Reluctant to return

Some injured workers returned to the plant voluntarily; one cited financial pressure, another said he feared being fired.Roman Tronco says he returned voluntarily after his fingertip was severed in August 2002 while cutting chicken wings with a saw.

He showed up for his next shift, company records show. He spent the day wiping tables and sweeping, his arm in a sling, he said.

Company documents show he was on light duty for 85 days.

Tronco said he was thankful for his job, which paid almost $9 an hour, a dollar more than he made at a company making bed comforters. He left the plant a year and a half after the accident.

Jimmy Cortez, a maintenance supervisor, said he returned for his next shift after slicing open the tip of his thumb with a saw in 2006.

The company didn't force him back, he said, but he feared being fired if he took a day off.

"If you get hurt, you got to work the next day," he said. "I wanted a day to recuperate, but I didn't have any other choice."

Worker's version disputed

Jaime Hernandez said a supervisor drove him back to work directly from surgery to remove a cyst from his hand. He said he was dizzy from pain medication and asked to go home.

"They told me I could not have a day to recoup," Hernandez said. "Not hours or even the rest of the day."

Hernandez, who worked under the name "Pablo," said he started at the plant in 2002, working on the de-boning line. He later moved to folding cardboard boxes, as many as 700 a day. Hernandez said he believes his cyst was caused by repetitive motion at work.

He complained to a plant nurse in 2003 after a ball formed on his right wrist. Hernandez said he visited first-aid attendants several times at the plant, only to be told he was fine and to return to work. The company later sent him to a doctor, who drained the cyst. Hernandez said the cyst returned and a doctor removed it.

A human resources employee drove Hernandez to his 10 a.m. surgery, he said, and afterward back to the plant.

"I asked, `Am I going to go home? I'm totally dizzy. I can't work,' " Hernandez recalled. "She said, `No, I have to take you to work.' "

Hernandez said he spent the rest of the shift sitting in an office chair, at times putting his head on the desk to sleep.

Asked about Hernandez, Cronic, the plant manager, said the Observer's account was inaccurate but didn't elaborate. "The company had specific reasons for its actions," he said. Because personnel records are confidential, he said, "This is all the company can say at this point."

House of Raeford fired Hernandez after he applied for workers' compensation benefits and disclosed that he is an illegal immigrant.

Cronic said that when the company learns of a worker's illegal status through a workers' compensation case, it is required by law to fire him.

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