April 27, 2015 started like most other days for Osiel Lopez Perez. The 16-year-old was thousands of miles away from his native Guatemala, toiling away at a Case Farms chicken processing plant in Canton, Ohio.
By the end of the day, Perez would lose his leg, and his job.
Perez’s story is the centerpiece of an investigative piece by ProPublica and The New Yorker by reporter Michael Grabell, who traveled to Ohio, South America and places in-between to interview former employees of Case Farms, which has been called one of the most dangerous workplaces in America.
In Perez’s case, he fell into a machine that he had climbed on to clean, due to a shortage of ladders. Perez says he’d been told to do so by plant managers, while the company disputes that claim.
Case Farms has a long history in Ohio, dating back to 1986, when owner Tom Shelton purchased a small egg and poultry plant in Winesburg, in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country.
Grabell says when much of the original Amish workforce started leaving over religious and ethical objections, they began to be replaced by Guatemalan immigrants, many of whom were refugees willing to do anything to stay in the U.S.
“I heard this several times from workers,” Grabell says. “It was kind of an unspoken policy that you could return to work with a different identification card if something were to happen where your Social Security number wasn’t good."
Grabell says many of the former Case workers he interviewed told a similar tale of an employer who hired them with a wink and a nod, then turned on them when they were injured or tried to improve workplace conditions.
“It was only when workers started protesting for higher pay or better conditions that the company began to do immigration checks to get rid of vocal workers,” Grabell says.
The company apparently preferred Guatemalans over Mexican workers, Grabell says, because Mexicans would typically return to their native country for Christmas, which was bad for business.
Case Farms did not respond to WOSU’s requests for comment, but Grabell says he spoke with a plant manager who said Case never knowingly hired undocumented immigrants and tried their best to follow immigration law.
A statement posted to the company website says:
We are aware of the recent article published by ProPublica and The New Yorker and disagree with the negative characterization of our company. The statements and allegations relating to our hiring practices, treatment of employees, safety concerns and animal welfare, are false and misleading. The article also omits many contrary facts and mixes industry issues which causes some confusion.
Case Farms is committed to implementing our core values every day. As we have grown in size, we still adhere to the same hometown values of honesty, accountability, trust and success, that were established decades ago.
Even in the dangerous business of chicken processing, Case stands apart from its peers when it comes to workplace violations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that from 2010 through 2016, for every 1,000 workers, Case had about 25 times the number of violations as Tyson Farms, and about 15 times that of Perdue, another industry giant.
“The former head of OSHA called it an outrageously dangerous place to work,” Grabell says. “Inspectors have been there numerous times finding repeated violations. They’ve been fined over $2 million.”
Grabell says some of those fines were levied after inspectors saw workers standing on machines to clean them, the same thing that led to Osiel Lopez Perez’s amputation.
The U.S. Labor Department fined Cal-Clean, Case Farms’ sanitation contractor, for hiring four child employees, including Perez, who now says he lied about his age and purchased fraudulent documents in order to get a job.