Bo Pilgrim’s Hands BY CAROL COUNTRYMAN Mount Pleasant p ILGRIM’S PRIDE Chief Executive Officer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim says in his commercials he “just won’t sell a fat yella chicken.” Neither would he bribe state officials. But in 1989, the CEO of the Northeast-Texas-based poultry company walked onto the floor of the Texas Senate and handed neatly folded $10,000 checks to legislatorswith the name of the payee blankalong with his business card and information outlining his concerns with workers’ compensation. Pilgrim’s Senate visit occurred two days before a crucial vote on a bill written to reform the state’s workers’ compensation bill. Workers’ compensation in Texas was too expensive, Pilgrim told legislators, and if reforms weren’t implemented he might have to move his company to Arkansas, where it is cheaper to operate. The bill, an attempt to “streamline” the workers’ compensation process and reduce the role of attorneys representing injured workers, was enacted and went into effect in 1991. Now, five years after Bo Pilgrim’s high-dollar lobbying effort, the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission has completed its second investigation into alleged wrongdoing at Pilgrim’s Pride. Both investigations found “numerous violations” on the part of Pilgrim’s Pride and its insurance carrier, Old Republic Insurance Company. Violations included late reporting of injuries and, in some cases, missing reports to the TWCC; late payments of benefits to injured workers; and late payment of medical bills to physicians. The state agency sent notices of violations seeking $28,000 in fines against Pilgrim’s Pride and $450,000 in fines against Old Republican Insurance Company, although commission spokeswoman Linda McKee said those fines may be reduced if the companies take steps to bring their procedures into compliance. The results of the investigation came as no surprise to Dr. Louis Arrondo, a Mount Vernon-based family practitioner and one of very few Spanish-speaking physicians practicing in East Texas. For years, Arrondo had been hearing horror stories from his patients about working conditions at the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Mount Pleasant. Injuries were Carol Countryman is a freelance writer based in Kemp. commonplace, they told him, and ranged from falls to severed limbs to death. Arrondo’ s female patients, mostly Hispanic and many of whom are undocumented, also complained that they were being physically and sexually abused by male supervisors. In order to get proper equipment, some said, they had to let the supervisors touch them. VALERIE FOWLER “They treat us badly,” said Blanca Garcia, who was injured at the plant and alleges she was sexually and physically abused. “They call us wetbacks. They tell us we should be grateful because we get paid more here in an hour than we do for a full day’s work in Mexico.” Arrondo tried to alert state officials to the problems. He phoned, faxed and wrote. But no one, it seemed, would listen. Then, in 1992, Arrondo wrote a confidential letter to the Workers’ Compensation Commission, relaying what his patients had been reporting. “I feel the employees at Pilgrim’s Pride are being mistreated, abused, and not being informed of their rights when it comes to workers’ compensation,” the letter said. Arrondo told the commission that reports of injuries were being suppressed by supervisors, that workers were not provided the forms on which to report accidents, that workers with repetitive-motion injuries were being pressured to continue with the same job until they were physically unable to continue. “Sexual abuse is also being related to me,” Arrondo stated in the letter. Shortly after he sent the letter, Arrondo said, workers began telling him that they were warned not to be treated in his office. Threats of firing and/or deportation were used to discourage workers who continued treatment in Arrondo’ s office, workers said. Arrondo said that at the same time it became difficult to collect from insurance companies. He later discovered that a TWCC official in the Tyler office was negotiating deals that denied Arrondo compensation for his services, prohibited workers from being treated in his office and denied workers their temporary income benefits. Representatives of Pilgrim’s Pride deny that the company harasses its employees or tries to prevent them from seeking medical attention for their injuries. The insurance company refused to respond to repeated attempts by the Observer to get comments. But Arrondo and his former patients produced documentation of months and years they have spent trying to obtain compensation for injuries sustained at a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant. “The wrongdoing starts at Pilgrim’s. They suppress the injuries,” Arrondo explained. “Eventually, the worker will complain so much that they can’t do their work anymoreuntil they get fired.” The most common injury reports suppressed, said Arrondo, are those which result from cumulative trauma, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and other impingement syndromes of the upper back, which cause the muscles to ache and swell from constant use. The damage is extremely painful, may cause crippling and often permanent gnarling of the hands and fingers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the poultry industry ranks third in the nation in the rate of occurrence of cumulative trauma injuries, which result from the furious pace of repetitive work and abnormal temperatures in the plants. \(According to state records, 912 injuries were reported to the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission from Pilgrim’s Pride’s Texas plants from January 1991 to May 1994. Those injuries included wrist and upper-back strains from repetitive motions in the production lines, broken bones and back and neck injuries from falls on the greasy floors, limbs being severed and at least three deaths in the plant since 1985. And in Lufkin one employee has been indicted on a charge of murder, which is alleged to have been commitMany of the line workers at Pilgrim’s 6 AUGUST 5, 1994
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