Hickman's Blames Inmates for Injuries They Suffer While Working on Its Egg Farms

Hickman's Family Farms has used inmates for labor for nearly 25 years.
Hickman's Family Farms has used inmates for labor for nearly 25 years. Elizabeth Whitman
Two days before Christmas last year, Mary Stinson lost part of a finger to a moving auger while working at Hickman's Family Farms.

It's her own fault, the company says.

"She should have never been working on the auger with it moving. She was told not to,” Jim Manos, Hickman's chief financial officer, told Phoenix New Times on Tuesday. "She'd had an auger training the day before. It should have been fresh in her mind."

Manos showed New Times a copy of a sign-in sheet from a training session on augers held the day before the accident. "Stinson" was scrawled in the middle of the page among other names and inmate numbers.

That training session would have been about 10 minutes long, Manos said. In these morning sessions, workers typically watch instructional videos, and then they take a test to prove that they understand what they've been shown. Demonstrations are also held on relevant equipment, he added.

Asked how Stinson did on her test, Manos smirked slightly and said he believed she'd performed very well. He could not produce the paperwork backing up that claim.

He also presented records from November 2017 showing that Stinson had attended new employee training.

In short, Manos said, New Times' description of Stinson as "barely trained" in a previous story was not accurate. Hickman's acknowledged but did not answer New Times' queries for that story.

Manos did not allow New Times to copy the documents he presented, citing the fact that a lawsuit filed by Stinson in August has not yet gone to discovery.

He did not express any condolences for her injury. Asked whether Hickman's training program was good enough to ensure worker safety, Manos responded, "I don't know what that would mean."

The executive, a burly man with a short, tight wave of silvery blond hair, suggested that injuries are inevitable on farms like Hickman's, where, according to the company's website, more than 750,000 eggs are processed every hour.

"We're a big farm with a lot of moving pieces," Manos said. "It's not that we're providing an unsafe environment. It's just the job."

On any given day, 200 people incarcerated in the Arizona prison system will go to work for Hickman's Family Farms, the largest egg producer in Arizona. The company also has about 600 civilian employees, about 80 of whom are former inmates, Manos said

He spoke unsympathetically — even disparagingly — of the workers who, in his telling, bring injuries upon themselves.

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The barns at Hickman's Family Farms in Tonopah.
Elizabeth Whitman
"People just, sometimes, they just don't think," he said. "You can't stop people from doing things that are going to harm them, if that's what they want to do." Or, he amended, workers might not be trying to hurt themselves — "They get in a hurry, and they're not thinking about what we've told them."

According to Manos, training sessions teach that any machinery with moving parts — like augers — must be stopped and locked about before a worker does any maintenance on it.

But apparently, some inmates just don't learn.

"You can't stop people from doing things that are going to harm them, if that's what they want to do." - Jim Manos, Hickman's CFO

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"I was out with our attorneys doing an inspection two months ago," Manos said. "And right in front of me, there's an inmate working on ... these gears that move."

"And he's working on it with it moving," he recounted. "So you had to stop him." 

He remembered another inmate who was working on an egg-breaking machine, which cracks shells and separates the liquid insides. The machine has a safety bar to prevent a person from reaching into dangerous moving parts, he described.

Nevertheless, that inmate tried to reach in to grab a rogue eggshell.

"I mean, she had to be a contortionist to get her arm through the safety bar, but she still did," Manos said.

Manos said he did not immediately know how many workers, both inmate and civilian, have been injured while working at Hickman's — though he suggested casually that these incidents, which range from cuts and scrapes to injuries' like Stinson's, are common.

"There are injuries probably every day, between civilians and inmates. It's just part of doing business," he said.

Internally, the company's human resources department tracks injuries, he said, and it submits reports of injuries to civilians to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He deferred to the Department of Corrections for data on injuries to inmates, whom state law does not classify as employees.

New Times requested these numbers from the Department of Corrections in mid-September but has yet to receive them. 
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.