The Arizona state agency charged with overseeing worker safety says it will inspect Hickman's Family Farms after Phoenix New Times reported that an inmate lost a finger working at the firm's Arlington egg plant.
The Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health "has initiated an inspection based on the incident described in [New Times'] story," ADOSH spokesperson Trevor Laky said via email on Friday. "We are unable to comment further on pending inspections."
In the last five years, ADOSH has never conducted a safety investigation or inspection of Hickman's, according to a public records request to the agency. Nor has ADOSH received any complaints about labor conditions at the egg producer's facilities.
Hickman's considers itself among the top 20 largest egg producers in the country and the largest in the Southwest. For nearly a quarter-century, it has relied heavily on cheap prison labor — the woman who lost her finger made $4.25 per hour — to do the smelly and dangerous work of cleaning its barns, killing its chickens, and fixing its equipment.
Besides the sub-minimum-wage labor, employing inmates offers the egg behemoth another perk: scant state oversight.
Even though Hickman's falls under ADOSH's jurisdiction, the agency does not have jurisdiction over the inmate laborers who work there. That's because Arizona does not consider inmates to be employees, and so anything that happens to an inmate working anywhere, not just at Hickman's, is technically not ADOSH's problem.
"Inmates within the prison system are not employees and therefore are not covered by the Arizona Occupational Safety and Health Act," Laky said.
State employment law excludes inmates. "Employment," it says, "does not apply" to services done "by an inmate of a custodial or penal institution."
So when companies under ADOSH's jurisdiction, like Hickman's, are required to notify the agency whenever an employee "is killed on the job or suffers a work-related hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye," according to ADOSH's website, the rules don't apply if injuries of this magnitude are inflicted on inmates.
Two days before Christmas last year, Mary Stinson, a woman who is incarcerated in Perryville, had to be sped to a local hospital after her right index finger was violently caught and chewed by a drill-like auger, machinery she said she was barely trained to use. The fingertip and top knuckle had to be amputated.
Some nine months after the accident, Stinson told New Times in a recent interview, she can't bend her finger and still suffers “bone-deep” pain.
“My hand will just go into spasms sometimes, from my finger into my thumb,” she said.
Laky, the ADOSH spokesperson, said that in order to use resources effectively, the agency prioritizes its inspections "based on risk level." Top of the list is a notice of "injury or fatality of an employee," followed by "referrals," or tips of unsafe working conditions. Planned inspections are at the bottom of the list.
New Times' article about Stinson was considered "a media referral," Laky said. In response to questions about the timing of such inspections, Laky said that it "varies."
Arizona law offers few protections or benefits for working inmates, said Stacy Scheff, a lawyer in Tucson who has represented inmates. For example, they are not entitled to worker's compensation.
“The only way they can get reimbursed for their injuries is to sue civilly,” Scheff said.
Stinson, who filed a lawsuit in August in Maricopa County Superior Court, is asking a jury to determine damages from Hickman's, and is seeking $1 million from the state. She is alleging negligence, saying that both failed to provide a safe working environment.
It is not clear how many inmates currently work at Hickman's, which has egg-producing facilities in Tonopah and Arlington, east of Phoenix, and the financial arrangements of that labor.
Arizona Correctional Industries, the division of the state Department of Corrections that provides prison labor to companies like Hickman's, has yet to respond to New Times' requests for such information.
Also unclear is the proportion of workers (we dare not call them "employees") at Hickman's who are currently or formerly incarcerated.
Clint Hickman, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, who also sits on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, did not respond to a voice message from New Times seeking comment for this story.
He and other members of the Hickman family have yet to return New Times' calls for comment for previous stories.