Two former employees at a Tyson chicken plant in North Carolina said they were repeatedly called a racial slur by a team leader during their four years of employment.
The employees — a married couple who are Black and Muslim — accused Tyson Farms Inc. of violating the Civil Rights Act by allowing management to discriminate against employees and retaliate against those who complained of mistreatment. Tyson Farms operates a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Wilkesboro, where the couple previously worked.
In a statement to McClatchy News, a representative for Tyson Foods declined to comment on pending litigation but said the company values diversity.
“At Tyson Foods, we value the enormous diversity of our team members and we continue to work hard to create an inclusive environment where everyone is, and feels, safe and respected,” the company said. “We also have a policy against workplace discrimination and harassment and will not tolerate any action that violates them.”
An attorney representing the former employees did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
The lawsuit was first filed April 22 in the Superior Court Division of Forsyth County, court filings show.
But Tyson’s defense attorney had the case moved to the Middle District of North Carolina on Friday, saying the claims under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fall under federal — not state — jurisdiction.
According to the complaint, Adrian and Michelle Switzer live in Forsyth County and worked in the thigh fillet department at Tyson Farms’ Fresh Plant, deboning and trimming chicken thighs from the spring of 2015 to mid-2019.
During that time, their attorney said in court filings, Tyson Farms required “strict company loyalty” and discouraged discussing employment matters with outsiders, creating a “strong fear” among workers who believed they would lose their jobs if they complained about conditions at the plant.
The Switzers’ team leader was a white woman who worked with the department supervisor to assign jobs, monitor productivity, and give employees protective equipment such as aprons, eye goggles and gloves, the complaint states.
But according to the lawsuit, she had an “innate predisposition” to hate Black people and Muslims, reportedly telling a supervisor on one occasion that “these (n-words) are just trashy, no good people.”
One day, the Switzers’ attorney said, she overheard them talking to a coworker about not eating pork.
“(The team leader) interjected herself in the conversation, her facial expression changed disapprovingly and she asked, ‘Y’all Muslim?’ and repeatedly questioned the plaintiffs after they affirmed that they were — as if it were the worse thing in the world — as to why they would want to be or become a Muslim,” the complaint states.
Her attitude toward the Switzers reportedly worsened after that encounter. According to the complaint, the team leader repeatedly referred to them using a racial slur, saying things such as “I’m sick of you, (n-word),” “Hurry up, (n-word)“ and “What are you looking at, (n-word).”
The Switzers complained about her behavior to their supervisor, Human Resources, the insurance department, facility management and the Tyson Farms’ 800 Employee HeIp Line — but nothing happened.
Then, on April 20, 2019, Michelle Switzer was fired. Her attorney said it was because of her “race, religion and retaliation for her prior complaints of racial and religious discrimination.”
Adrian Switzer quit shortly thereafter, citing the team leader’s “pervasive racial hostility toward him,” the lawsuit states.
The couple filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 2019. The EEOC issued a right-to-sue notice in January, saying there was “reasonable cause to believe” certain violations occurred but they weren’t able to obtain a settlement with Tyson.
“This does not mean that the EEOC is certifying that the respondent is in compliance with the law, or that the EEOC will not sue the respondent later or intervene later in your lawsuit if you decide to sue on your own behalf,” the letter stated.