HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WHLT) – Just as Wayne Farms and Sanderson Farms join forces, the Justice Department has filed a lawsuit on the poultry companies for claims of unfair treatment of workers.

“First, it’s that Sanderson and Wayne violated the Sherman act by participating in a long-running conspiracy with a number of other poultry processors in the United States to exchange information about the wages and benefits that they pay the plant workers. The processor has also collaborated about certain compensation decisions for workers,” said Doha Mekki, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General with the Justice Department Antitrust Division.

The department alleges this has been going on for 20 years since the 2000s. The poultry companies and co-conspirators in the lawsuit account for hiring about 90% of all chicken processing jobs in the nation. They said they are proud of their track record with employees and growers.

“While we are pleased to have resolved this matter and put it behind us, both legacy companies are proud of their track record with their employees and growers and the agreement with DOJ evidences our commitment to continue to be an industry leader in those areas. As we proceed with the integration of Wayne-Sanderson Farms, we look forward to investing in our communities, employees and grower partners to ensure there continues to be a strong and competitive American food supply,” said Frank Singleton, a spokesperson for Wayne-Sanderson Farms.

At the same time as the lawsuit, the department proposed consent decrees that make the poultry plants pay $84.8 million in restitution for workers who were harmed by the unlawful information sharing network the poultry companies created

“The first is that the companies will be required to stop sharing confidential information about their compensation for their plant workers. The consent decree would also prohibit any retaliation against workers or growers who report suspected antitrust violations. The companies have committed to paying up to approximately $84 million collectively in restitution from the poultry processing plant workers that were hurt by the alleged gain,” said Mekki.

The proposed consent decree would also resolve allegations that Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms treated chicken farmers unfairly by using a system that reduced their pay for low performance.