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Curly's Foods, Sioux City

Curly's Foods recently settled a labor lawsuit filed by five workers who sought pay for the time they spent putting on and taking off protective gear before and after their shifts.

SIOUX CITY | Workers at a Sioux City specialty meat plant have sued their employer, making claims similar to those that were the basis of a case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last fall.

Five women claim that Curly's Foods violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying plant workers for time spent putting on and taking off required protective gear before and after their eight-hour shifts and during their unpaid 30-minute meal breaks.

Lawyers are seeking class-action status for the suit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Sioux City. The suit said there are about 700 workers at the plant who would be party to the suit.

Named in the suit are Smithfield Foods and John Morrell & Co., which are doing business as Curly's. Both are divisions of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer and processor and American subsidiary of the Chinese company Shuanghui Group.

L. Dale Owens, an Atlanta attorney representing Smithfield, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The women, Maria Limon, Ida Moreno, Claudia Sanchez, Yolanda Joaquin and Loyda Aguilar, are seeking unpaid wages and overtime pay. They say in the lawsuit that they must put on their smock, boots, gloves, helmet, ear plugs and work glasses before clocking in to begin their work shift and take them off after clocking out at the end of their shift. Donning and doffing the gear is also done during their unpaid meal break. They are also not paid for time spent standing in line waiting to clock in, they said in the lawsuit.

The case is similar to others that have wound through the federal court system the past decade.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case involving 3,000 workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, who also said they were not paid for time donning and doffing protective gear.

A federal jury awarded the workers $5.8 million, a decision upheld by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Tyson appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the means by which the class action status was granted. The court has yet to issue its decision, a ruling being closely watched by business and labor interests because it could affect workers' abilities to band together to dispute pay and workplace issues.

In August, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned judgments awarding more than $20 million to workers in Tyson's Dakota City and Madison, Nebraska, plants for the time spent putting on and taking off protective clothing. The court said workers failed to show that Tyson had agreed to pay them for that time.

The Curly's suit is filed at a time when the company is expanding its plant in the Yards I-29 Business Park. In January, the Sioux City Council approved a contract that will deliver $360,000 in state tax incentives for a $9 million expansion of the plant, which processes ribs and other pre-cooked meats. The tax credits would come from the state's High Quality Jobs program.

The expansion includes $6 million to add 13,000 square feet and make other improvements to the facility and $3 million for new machinery and equipment. The company has pledged to create 30 new jobs and retain 627 positions.

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