Sold for Parts

One of the most dangerous companies in the U.S. took advantage of immigrant workers. Then, when they got hurt or fought back, it used America’s laws against them.

This story was co-published with The New Yorker.

By late afternoon, the smell from the Case Farms chicken plant in Canton, Ohio, is like a pungent fog, drifting over a highway lined with dollar stores and auto parts shops. When the stink is at its ripest, it means that the day’s 180,000 chickens have been slaughtered, drained of blood, stripped of feathers and carved into pieces — and it’s time for workers like Osiel López Pérez to clean up. On April 7, 2015, Osiel put on bulky rubber boots and a white hard hat, and trained a pressurized hose on the plant’s stainless steel machines, blasting off the leftover grease, meat and blood.

A Guatemalan immigrant, Osiel was just weeks past his 17th birthday, too young by law to work in a factory. A year earlier, after gang members shot his mother and tried to kidnap his sisters, he left his home, in the mountainous village of Tectitán, and sought asylum in the United States. He got the job at Case Farms with a driver’s license that said his name was Francisco Sepulveda, age 28. The photograph on the ID was of his older brother, who looked nothing like him, but nobody asked any questions.

Osiel sanitized the liver giblet chiller, a tublike contraption that cools chicken innards by cycling them through a near-freezing bath, then looked for a ladder, so that he could turn off the water valve above the machine. As usual, he said, there weren’t enough ladders to go around, so he did as a supervisor had shown him: He climbed up the machine, onto the edge of the tank, and reached for the valve. His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it 180 degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine “literally ripped off his left leg,” medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg.

Back at the plant, Osiel’s supervisors hurriedly demanded workers’ identification papers. Technically, Osiel worked for Case Farms’ closely affiliated sanitation contractor, and suddenly the bosses seemed to care about immigration status. Within days, Osiel and several others — all underage and undocumented — were fired.

Though Case Farms isn’t a household name, you’ve probably eaten its chicken. Each year, it produces nearly a billion pounds for customers such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Popeyes, and Taco Bell. Boar’s Head sells its chicken as deli meat in supermarkets. Since 2011, the U.S. government has purchased nearly $17 million worth of Case Farms chicken, mostly for the federal school lunch program.

Case Farms plants are among the most dangerous workplaces in America. In 2015 alone, federal workplace safety inspectors fined the company nearly $2 million, and in the past seven years it has been cited for 240 violations. That’s more than any other company in the poultry industry except Tyson Foods, which has more than 30 times as many employees. David Michaels, the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, called Case Farms “an outrageously dangerous place to work.” Four years before Osiel lost his leg, Michaels’s inspectors had seen Case Farms employees standing on top of machines to sanitize them and warned the company that someone would get hurt. Just a week before Osiel’s accident, an inspector noted in a report that Case Farms had repeatedly taken advantage of loopholes in the law and given the agency false information. “The company has a 25-year track record of failing to comply with federal workplace safety standards,” Michaels said.

Case Farms has built its business by recruiting some of the world’s most vulnerable immigrants, who endure harsh and at times illegal conditions that few Americans would put up with. When these workers have fought for higher pay and better conditions, the company has used their immigration status to get rid of vocal workers, avoid paying for injuries and quash dissent. Thirty years ago, Congress passed an immigration law mandating fines and even jail time for employers who hire unauthorized workers, but trivial penalties and weak enforcement have allowed employers to evade responsibility. Under President Obama, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed not to investigate workers during labor disputes. Advocates worry that President Trump, whose administration has targeted unauthorized immigrants, will scrap those agreements, emboldening employers to simply call ICE anytime workers complain.

While the president stirs up fears about Latino immigrants and refugees, he ignores the role that companies, particularly in the poultry and meatpacking industry, have played in bringing those immigrants to the Midwest and the Southeast. The newcomers’ arrival in small, mostly white cities experiencing industrial decline in turn helped foment the economic and ethnic anxieties that brought Trump to office. Osiel ended up in Ohio by following a generation of indigenous Guatemalans, who have been the backbone of Case Farms’ workforce since 1989, when a manager drove a van down to the orange groves and tomato fields around Indiantown, Florida, and came back with the company’s first load of Mayan refugees.

In 2015, the director of OSHA called Case Farms “an outrageously dangerous place to work.” That year, the agency fined the company nearly $2 million after finding dozens of safety violations.

Just before the presidential election in November, I toured Case Farms’ chicken plant in Canton with several managers. After putting on hairnets and butcher coats, we walked into a vast, refrigerated factory that is kept at 45 degrees in order to prevent bacterial growth. The sound of machines drowned out everything except shouting. Thousands of raw chickens whizzed by on overhead shackles, slid into chutes and were mechanically sawed into thighs and drumsticks. A bird, I learned, could go from clucking to nuggets in less than three hours, and be in your bucket or burrito by lunchtime the next day.

Poultry processing begins in the chicken houses of contracted farmers. At night, when the chickens are sleeping, crews of chicken catchers round them up, grabbing four in each hand and caging them as the birds peck and scratch and defecate. Workers told me that they are paid around $2.25 for every 1,000 chickens. Two crews of nine catchers can bring in about 75,000 chickens a night.

At the plant, the birds are dumped into a chute that leads to the “live hang” area, a room bathed in black light, which keeps the birds calm. Every two seconds, employees grab a chicken and hang it upside down by its feet. “This piece here is called a breast rub,” Chester Hawk, the plant’s burly maintenance manager, told me, pointing to a plastic pad. “It’s rubbing their breast, and it’s giving them a calming sensation. You can see the bird coming toward the stunner. He’s very calm.” The birds are stunned by an electric pulse before entering the “kill room,” where a razor slits their throats as they pass. The room looks like the set of a horror movie: blood splatters everywhere and pools on the floor. One worker, known as the “backup killer,” stands in the middle, poking chickens with his knife and slicing their necks if they’re still alive.

The headless chickens are sent to the “defeathering room,” a sweltering space with a barnlike smell. Here the dead birds are scalded with hot water before mechanical fingers pluck their feathers. In 2014, an animal welfare group said that Case Farms had the “worst chicken plants for animal cruelty” after it found that two of the company’s plants had more federal humane-handling violations than any other chicken plant in the country. Inspectors reported that dozens of birds were scalded alive or frozen to their cages.

Next, the chickens enter the “evisceration department,” where they begin to look less like animals and more like meat. One overhead line has nothing but chicken feet. The floors are slick with water and blood, and a fast-moving wastewater canal, which workers call “the river,” runs through the plant. Mechanical claws extract the birds’ insides, and a line of hooks carry away the “gut pack” — the livers, gizzards and hearts, with the intestines dangling like limp spaghetti.

By late afternoon, the stench from the Case Farms chicken plant in Canton, Ohio, hovers like a pungent fog over Nimishillen Creek and drifts down a highway lined with dollar stores and auto parts shops.

On the refrigerated side of the plant, there’s a long table called the “deboning line.” After being chilled, then sawed in half by a mechanical blade, the chickens, minus legs and thighs, end up here. At this point, the workers take over. Two workers grab the chickens and place them on steel cones, as if they were winter hats with earflaps. The chickens then move to stations where dozens of cutters, wearing aprons and hairnets and armed with knives, stand shoulder to shoulder, each performing a rapid series of cuts — slicing wings, removing breasts and pulling out the pink meat for chicken tenders.

Case Farms managers said that the lines in Canton run about 35 birds a minute, but workers at other Case Farms plants told me that their lines run as fast as 45 birds a minute. In 2015, meat, poultry and fish cutters, repeating similar motions more than 15,000 times a day, experienced carpal tunnel syndrome at nearly 20 times the rate of workers in other industries. The combination of speed, sharp blades and close quarters is dangerous: Since 2010, more than 750 processing workers have suffered amputations. Case Farms says it allows bathroom breaks at reasonable intervals, but workers in North Carolina told me that they must wait so long that some of them wear diapers. One woman told me that the company disciplined her for leaving the line to use the bathroom, even though she was seven months pregnant.

Case Farms was founded in 1986, when Tom Shelton, a longtime poultry executive, bought a family-owned operation called Case Egg & Poultry, whose plant was in Winesburg, Ohio. In the world of larger-than-life chicken tycoons, like Bo Pilgrim — who built a grandiose mansion in rural Texas nicknamed Cluckingham Palace — Shelton, with a neat mustache, a corporate hairstyle and a mild manner, stood out. The son of a farmer, Shelton majored in poultry technology at North Carolina State, where he was the president of the poultry club and participated in national competitions in which teams of aspiring poultrymen graded chicken carcasses for quality and defects. Perdue Farms hired him right out of college, and he quickly rose through the ranks, attending Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program before becoming Perdue’s president, at the age of 43.

In 1986, the year that Shelton resigned from Perdue and started Case Farms, he gave a keynote address at the International Poultry Trade Show. It was a time of change: New mass market products such as nuggets, fingers and buffalo wings — along with health concerns over red meat — had made chicken a staple of American diets. With more women working, families no longer had time to cut up whole chickens. To meet the growing demand, Shelton told the audience, poultry plants would have to become more automated, and they would also need lots of labor.

Shelton was the kind of manager who could recite the details involved in every step of production, from the density of breeding cages to the number of birds processed per man-hour. He set about maximizing line speeds at Case Farms, buying additional family-owned operations and implementing modern factory practices. Today, the company’s four plants — Morganton and Dudley, in North Carolina, and Canton and Winesburg, in Ohio — employ more than 3,000 people.

Winesburg, the home of Shelton’s first plant, is a small community in the middle of Amish country. Even today, it’s not uncommon for drivers to yield for horse-drawn buggies or to see women in long dresses and bonnets carrying goods home from Whitmer’s General Store. Before Shelton bought the plant, it had employed mostly young Amish women and Mennonites. But, as the company expanded, it stopped recognizing Amish holidays and began hiring outside the insular community. “The Amish fathers found the urban newcomers objectionable because of such things as coarse slogans on T-shirts, vulgarity in conversations, and ‘necking’ in the parking lot,” the company said later, in federal court filings. The Amish workers left Case Farms, and, almost immediately, the company had trouble finding people who were willing to work under its poor conditions for little more than minimum wage. It turned first to the residents of nearby Rust Belt cities, which had fallen on hard times following the collapse of the steel and rubber industries. Turnover was high. About 25 to 30 of its 500 employees left every week.

Four years before Osiel lost his leg, OSHA inspectors saw Case Farms employees standing on top of machines to sanitize them and warned the company that somebody would get hurt.

Scrambling to find workers in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Case Farms sent recruiters across the country to hire Latino workers. Many of the new arrivals found the conditions intolerable. In one instance, the recruiters hired dozens of migrant farmworkers from border towns in Texas, offering them bus tickets to Ohio and housing once there. When workers arrived, they encountered a situation that a federal judge later called “wretched and loathsome.” They were packed in small houses with about 20 other people. Although it was the middle of winter, the houses had no heat, furniture or blankets. One worker said that his house had no water, so he flushed the toilet with melted snow. They slept on the floor, where cockroaches crawled over them. At dawn, they rode to the plant in a dilapidated van whose seating consisted of wooden planks resting on cinder blocks. Exhaust fumes seeped in through holes in the floor. The Texas farmworkers quit, but by then Case Farms had found a new solution to its labor problems.

One spring night in 1989, a Case Farms human resources manager named Norman Beecher got behind the wheel of a large passenger van and headed south. He had gotten a tip about a Catholic church in Florida that was helping refugees from the Guatemalan civil war. Thousands of Mayans had been living in Indiantown after fleeing a campaign of violence carried out by the Guatemalan military. More than 200,000 people, most of them Mayan, were killed or forcibly disappeared in the conflict. A report commissioned by the United Nations described instances of soldiers beating children “against walls or throwing them alive into pits,” and covering people “in petrol and burning them alive.” In 1981, in a village of Aguacatán, where many Case Farms workers come from, soldiers rounded up and shot 22 men. They then split their skulls and ate their brains, dumping the bodies into a ravine.

Through the years, the United States had supported Guatemala’s dictators with money, weapons, intelligence and training. Amid the worst of the violence, President Reagan, after meeting with General Efraín Ríos Montt, told the press that he believed the regime had “been getting a bum rap.” The administration viewed the Guatemalan refugees as economic migrants and communist sympathizers — threats to national security. Only a handful received asylum. The Mayans who made it to Florida had limited options.

Beecher arrived at the church in time for Sunday Mass, and set himself up in its office. He had no trouble recruiting parishioners to return with him to the Case Farms plant in Morganton, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those first Guatemalans worked so hard, Beecher told the labor historian Leon Fink in his book, “The Maya of Morganton,” that supervisors kept asking for more, prompting a return trip. Soon vans were running regularly between Indiantown and Morganton, bringing in new recruits. “I didn’t want [Mexicans],” Beecher, who died in 2014, told Fink. “Mexicans will go back home at Christmastime. You’re going to lose them for six weeks. And in the poultry business you can’t afford that. You just can’t do it. But Guatemalans can’t go back home. They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot.” Shelton approved hiring the immigrants, Beecher said, and when the plant was fully staffed and production had doubled “he was tickled to death.”

Hispanic Immigration Follows Poultry Production

In the 1990s, poultry and meatpacking companies began recruiting heavily in Hispanic communities around the United States, helping to spur migration to poultry processing areas. The maps below compare counties with high poultry production — which have stayed largely the same over the years — with the share of Hispanic population, which has increased dramatically.

Major Poultry Producing Counties,

Over one million live chickens produced (broilers)

Hispanic Share of Population,






Hispanic Share of Population

< 5%




Sources: Poultry Production Data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Hispanic Population Data from Pew Research Center

Evodia González Dimas could feel the pain in her left arm getting worse. For eight hours a day, she stood at a cutting table at the Case Farms Morganton plant, using a knife or scissors to remove fat and bones from chicken legs every two to three seconds. She wore a chain-mail glove on her non-cutting hand to protect it from accidental stabs by her knife or by the blades of her co-workers. The glove weighed about as much as a softball, but grew heavier as grease and fat caught in the steel mesh. By 2006, the pain and swelling were routinely driving González to the plant’s first-aid station. A nursing assistant would give her pain relievers and send her back to the line. She could no longer lift a gallon of milk, and had trouble making a fist. At night, after putting her children to bed, she’d rub soothing lotion on her swollen wrist and forearm.

One Friday, in September 2006, González was called to Case Farms’ human resources office. The director told her that the company had received a letter from the Social Security Administration informing it that the Social Security number she had provided wasn’t valid. González, one of the few Mexicans at the plant, told me that the director sold her a new permanent resident card, with the name Claudia Zamora, for $500, and helped her fill out a new application. (The human resources director denied selling her the ID.) She was assigned to the same job, with the same supervisor. And Case Farms paid her more than it did new hires, noting in her file that she “had previous poultry experience.”

Around that time, Case Farms workers began complaining that their yellow latex gloves ripped easily, soaking their hands with cold chicken juice. Only after pieces of rubber began appearing in packages of chicken did Case Farms buy more expensive, better-quality gloves. It passed the extra expense along to its employees, charging workers, who were making between $7 and $8 dollars an hour, 50 cents a pair if they used more than three pairs during a shift.

The morning the policy took effect, in October 2006, there were grumbles throughout the plant’s locker rooms. As workers began cutting chickens, the line abruptly stopped. One woman yelled that if they stuck together they could force the company to change the policy. When they refused to go back to work, managers called the police, and officers escorted workers off the premises.

More than 250 workers left the plant, gathering at a Catholic church nearby. González and another woman agreed to speak to a local newspaper reporter. Quoted as Claudia Zamora, González said, “Workers at Case Farms are routinely told to ignore notes from doctors about work restrictions when they’ve been injured on the job.” OSHA later found that Case Farms often made workers wait months to see a doctor, flouted restrictions and fired injured workers who couldn’t do their job.

How Case Farm Compares

OSHA violations per 1,000 employees from Jan. 1, 2010 through Dec. 31, 2016
(as of April 2017)

Case Farms
House of Raeford
Pilgrim’s Pride
Mountaire Farms
Wayne Farms
Perdue Farms
Koch Foods
Keystone Foods
Tyson Foods
Peco Foods
Foster Farms
Sanderson Farms
Notes: Violation counts are current as of April 2017. OSHA does not inspect every plant equally. The number of violations is influenced by the number of inspections, accidents, complaints, a plant's prior record, and regional enforcement initiatives as well as overall safety.
Sources: ProPublica analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data. Employment numbers came from the most recent data available via Securities and Exchange Commission filings, company websites and public statements.

Returning to the factory on the Monday after the walkout, González brought a note from the local medical clinic prescribing “light work or no work” for a week. She gave it to the safety manager, who asked her to fill out a report stating when the pain began. When she wrote “2003,” he was baffled. According to personnel records, “Zamora” had worked there for only a month. The human resources director who had hired González as Zamora summoned her to the office; she had been sent a copy of the newspaper article quoting González. The pain couldn’t be related to work at Case Farms, the director told González. After all, she was a new employee.

González didn’t understand. “I’m not new,” she said, her voice rising. “You know how many years I’ve been working here.”

“Claudia, you’re a probationary employee,” the director replied. “I don’t have a job for you.”

González challenged her firing before the National Labor Relations Board, a federal body created to protect workers’ rights to organize. The NLRB judge wrote, “In my opinion, [Case Farms] knew exactly what was going on with respect to her employment status.” The company, he said, “took advantage of the situation.” The board eventually ruled that González had been illegally fired for protesting working conditions. But the victory was largely symbolic. In 2002, the Supreme Court had ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that undocumented workers had the right to complain about labor violations, but that companies had no obligation to rehire them or to pay back wages. In the dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer predicted that the court’s decision would incentivize employers to hire undocumented workers “with a wink and a nod,” knowing that “they can violate the labor laws at least once with impunity.”

Case Farms had broken the law, but there was nothing González could do about it. The doctor told her that she needed surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, but she never got it. A decade later, her hand is limp, and her anger still fresh. “This hand,” she told me, sitting in her living room. “I try not to use it at all.”

Centro San Jose, a social welfare agency and legal clinic in Canton, Ohio, has been swamped the past few years as hundreds of unaccompanied minors have come to the area, fleeing violence in Guatemala.

What happened to González was part of Case Farms’ decadeslong strategy to beat back worker unrest with creative uses of immigration law. The year that Case Farms was founded, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal to “knowingly” hire undocumented immigrants. But employers aren’t required to be document experts, which makes it hard to penalize them. The requirement that workers fill out an I-9 form, however, declaring under penalty of perjury that they’re authorized to work, makes it easy for employers to retaliate against workers.

In 1993, around 100 Case Farms employees refused to work in protest against low pay, lack of bathroom breaks and payroll deductions for aprons and gloves. In response, Case Farms had 52 of them arrested for trespassing. In 1995, more than 200 workers walked out of the plant and, after striking for four days, voted to unionize. Three weeks after the protest, Case Farms requested documents from more than 100 employees whose work permits had expired or were about to expire. Case Farms refused to negotiate with the union for three years, appealing the election results all the way to the Supreme Court. After the company lost the case, it reduced the workweek to four days in an effort to put pressure on the employees. Eventually, the union pulled out.

Case Farms followed the same playbook in 2007, when workers at the Winesburg plant complained about faster line speeds and a procedure that required them to cut three wings at a time by stacking the wings and running them through a spinning saw. Occasionally, the wings broke, and bones got caught in workers’ gloves, dragging their fingers through the saw. One day, a Guatemalan immigrant named Juan Ixcoy refused to cut the wings that way. As word spread through the plant, workers stopped the lines and gathered in the cafeteria. Ixcoy, who is now 42, became a leader in a new fight to unionize. “They saw that I didn’t have fear,” he told me.

In July 2008, more than 150 workers went on strike. For nine months, through the depths of the recession, they picketed in a cornfield across the street from the plant. In the winter, they bundled up in snowsuits and protested from a shed made of plywood and bales of hay. According to the NLRB, when the workers walked out again, in 2010, a manager told an employee that he would take out the strike leaders “one at a time.” A short time later, Ixcoy was fired for insubordination after an argument with a manager on the plant floor prompted some workers to bang their knives and yell “Strike!” A judge with the NLRB found that Ixcoy had been unlawfully fired for his union activity and ordered that he be reinstated. After Ixcoy returned to work, however, the union received a letter saying that it had come to the company’s attention that nine of its employees might not be legally authorized to work in the United States. Seven were on the union organizing committee, including Ixcoy. All were fired.

After Juan Ixcoy led a series of strikes for better pay and conditions at the Winesburg plant, Case Farms investigated his immigration status and fired him.

The company’s sudden discovery that the union organizers were undocumented was hard to credit. Ixcoy had first been hired in 1999, as Elmer Noel Rosado. After a few years, a Case Farms manager told him that the company had received notice that there was another person, in California, working under the same ID. “The manager, he told me if you can buy another paper you’re welcome to come back,” Ixcoy said. So he bought another ID for $1,000 and returned to Case Farms under the name Omar Carrion Rivera. Current and former workers at Case Farms’ four plants said that the company had an unspoken policy of allowing them to come back with a new ID. An employee in Dudley told me that he had worked at the plant under four different names. Case Farms executives had to have known that many of their employees were unauthorized. On at leastthreeoccasions, scores of workers fled their plants, fearing immigration raids.

Ixcoy eventually received a special visa for crime victims because of the workplace abuses he had suffered. “Ixcoy lived in an atmosphere of fear created by supervisors at Case Farms,” the Labor Department wrote in his visa application. “He feared for his own safety, that if he complained or cooperated with authorities, he would be arrested or deported.”

In the past few years, Tom Shelton has cast himself as the genial proprietor of a winery that he runs on his 40-acre estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Its name, Bordeleau, means “the water’s edge,” and it’s one of the few wineries in the United States that you can visit by boat. Shelton exercises the same attention to detail at the winery that he does at Case Farms. According to Bordeleau’s website, he is “particular about everything, from pruning vines to the operation of the bottling line to the freshness of the wines being served in the tasting room.” The label features Shelton’s elegant Georgian-style château.

Shelton never responded to my calls or letters. A Case Farms PR person said he declined to be interviewed and, instead, arranged for me to meet with the company’s vice chairman, Mike Popowycz, and other managers in a conference room in Winesburg. Popowycz is the son of Ukrainian immigrants, who came to America after World War II. His father was a steelworker, and his mother worked nights in a thread mill. “I know what these people go through every day,” he said. “I can see the struggles that they go through because those are the struggles my parents went through.”

Popowycz, who is the chairman of the industry’s trade group, the National Chicken Council, said that Case Farms had made some safety mistakes but was working hard to correct them. He defended the company on every question I had. Case Farms, he said, treated its workers well and never refused to let them use the bathroom. Fees for replacement equipment discouraged workers from throwing things away. As for unions, the company didn’t need someone to stand between it and its employees. “Our goal is to prove that we’re not the company that OSHA has basically said we are,” he told me.

Case Farms had notice on numerous occasions that a large share of its workforce was undocumented. At least three times in its history, workers fled their plants, fearing immigration raids. One worker said he has worked at Case Farms under four different names.

Popowycz seemed unaware of many of the specific incidents I cited. He was almost like a parent hearing of his teenager’s delinquency: He hoped supervisors didn’t do that, but, if they did, it was wrong. Case Farms operates under a decentralized management system, which Shelton instituted early on. Every Monday at 8 a.m., Shelton hosts a conference call from Maryland, but many decisions are left to local managers. “We want the people at the locations to manage their business as if it’s their own,” Popowycz said.

I found it hard to believe that Shelton, who is known to ask questions about a $10,000 equipment expense, wouldn’t be aware of workplace disputes costing tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. I contacted 60 former Case Farms managers, supervisors and human resources representatives. Most declined to comment or didn’t return my calls, but I spoke to eight of them. Many agreed that Shelton gave them a good deal of autonomy, and denied that there was pressure to produce chickens faster and more cheaply. “When I was there, any problems that we saw, we took care of it,” Andy Cilona, a human resources director in Winesburg in the ’90s, told me. But two said that promotions went to those who pushed employees hardest, which led some supervisors to treat workers harshly.

Popowycz acknowledged that some human resources supervisors had sold fake IDs; when the company found out, it fired them. He insisted that Case Farms complied with immigration laws. It was one of the first companies in Ohio to report Social Security numbers to immigration in the ’90s. Case Farms also periodically audits its personnel records, and when it receives letters from the authorities about discrepancies in workers’ IDs it investigates. But the company has never used immigration status to retaliate against injured or vocal workers, Popowycz said; any firings that occurred after protests were coincidental. “At the end of the day, we need labor in our plants; we’re not looking to get rid of these folks,” Popowycz said. “Do we do everything right? We hope we do.”

Last fall, I traveled to several villages in the Guatemalan state of Huehuetenango in the hope of finding former Case Farms workers. After passing through the market town of Aguacatán, where women in white-and-red huipiles sell everything from garlic to geese, I headed 45 minutes up a mountain to the village of Chex, where I found a cargo truck that had careened over the side of a road. Dozens of men came from the nearby fields and helped brace the truck with branches and ropes. I asked the men if any of them had worked for Case Farms. “I worked there for a year, around 1999 to 2000,” one man said. “2003,” another added. “Six months. It’s killer work.” “11 years,” said another. Two said that they had been among the first Guatemalans to work in Winesburg.

Former Case Farms workers turned up everywhere — the hotel clerk in Aguacatán, members of the local church, a hitchhiker I picked up on the way to another village. One man in Chex had been a chicken catcher in Winesburg, but years of overuse had left his elbow swollen and in chronic pain. Unaware that Case Farms is supposed to pay for workplace injuries, he told me that he had returned to Guatemala to heal and had spent thousands of dollars seeing doctors. Now his arm lay frozen at his side.

The village where Osiel grew up, Tectitán, is reachable by a rutted red-dirt road marked by two dozen hairpin turns. It’s so isolated that it has its own language, which is spoken almost nowhere else.

The village where Osiel grew up, Tectitán, is at the top of another mountain five hours west, reachable by a winding red dirt road. It’s so isolated that it has its own language, Tektiteko. Like Chex, Tectitán has a long history of sending residents north to work at Case Farms. By the time Osiel was a teenager, a man watching a soccer match could make fun of the Guatemalan team’s goalie on Facebook by saying that he “couldn’t even grab the chickens at Case Farms.”

I met Osiel at Centro San Jose, a social welfare agency and legal clinic operated from an old redbrick Lutheran church on the edge of downtown Canton. For the past few years, Centro San Jose has been swamped by hundreds of unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence in Guatemala. Osiel was wearing a blue knit hat with a pompom, a white compression shirt, sweatpants with patches, and blue sneakers. He told me that he left Guatemala on his 16th birthday, after his mother’s murder, and, two weeks later, was in the custody of border patrol agents in Arizona. He moved in with an uncle in Canton and befriended some other teenagers from Tectitán who were working nights at Case Farms. He worked at the plant for eight months, earning $9 an hour, before the accident.

Osiel said that, on the night of the accident, after passing out in the machine, he awoke in the hospital. “The nurses told me that I lost my leg,” he recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t feel any pain. And then, hours later, I tried to touch it. I didn’t have anything there. I started crying.” Today, he lives with two of his brothers in a weathered gable-front house next to a vacant lot. He is still getting used to the prosthesis, and hobbles when he walks. “I never thought that something like this could happen to me,” he said. “They told me that they couldn’t do anything for my leg to get better. They told me that everything was going to be OK.”

Osiel started working at Case Farms when he was 16 years old, too young by law to work in a factory. The job cost him his leg when he fell into a machine.

The Labor Department, in addition to finding numerous safety violations, fined Cal-Clean, Case Farms’ sanitation contractor, $63,000 for employing four child laborers, including Osiel. The fines and the citations against Case Farms have continued to accumulate. Last September, OSHA determined that the company’s line speeds and work flow were so hazardous to workers’ hands and arms that it should “investigate and change immediately” nearly all the positions on the line. As the company fights the fines, it finds new ways to keep labor costs down. For a time, after the Guatemalan workers began to organize, Case Farms recruited Burmese refugees. Then it turned to ethnic Nepalis expelled from Bhutan, who today make up nearly 35 percent of the company’s employees in Ohio. “It’s an industry that targets the most vulnerable group of workers and brings them in,” Debbie Berkowitz, OSHA’s former senior policy adviser, told me. “And when one group gets too powerful and stands up for their rights they figure out who’s even more vulnerable and move them in.”

Recently, Case Farms has found a more captive workforce. One blazing morning last summer in Morganton, an old yellow school bus arrived at Case Farms and passed through the plant’s gates, pulling up to the employee entrance. Dozens of inmates from the local prison filed off, ready to work at the plant. Even their days may be numbered, however. During the tour in Canton, Popowycz and other Case Farms managers showed me something they were excited about, something that would help solve their labor problems and also reduce injuries: In a corner of the plant was a shiny new machine called an “automatic deboner.” It would soon replace 70 percent of the workers on the line.

This story is not subject to our Creative Commons license.

Author photo

Michael Grabell covers economic issues, labor, immigration and trade. He has reported on the ground from more than 30 states, as well as some of the remotest villages in Alaska and Guatemala. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times and on Vice and NPR. He has won a Gerald Loeb Award for business journalism and an IRE Medal for investigative reporting and is a three-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.

Photos by Hector Emanuel, special to ProPublica. Design and production by David Sleight.

Comments powered by Disqus