From MPBN.net, Maine Public Broadcasting Network, Susan Sharon, 12 Apr 2011.
Several recent employees of the former DeCoster Egg Farm in Turner are alleging that they have been cheated out of overtime pay, denied prompt medical attention and proper safety equipment–and, in some cases, fired for speaking up. The workers have made their complaints with the Maine Chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC. But the egg farm denies the allegations and is defending what it says are well-monitored employment practices.
It’s been 15 years since former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich compared living and working conditions at the sprawling DeCoster Egg Farm to a sweatshop–and almost as many years since the egg farm was split into several companies and changed its name.
But workers say they still answer to Jack DeCoster and his son, Jay. They still call it DeCoster Egg Farm and some say conditions haven’t changed very much.
“They promised us an apartment. They promised us that we would get a bonus especially for working in the cold conditions, and that we would have 40 hours regular, plus 20 to 30 overtime hours,” said Leo Sierra, a former employee who says he worked for two years packing eggs, cleaning barns and ferrying workers between their apartments in Lewiston and the Turner egg farm everyday.
Speaking through interpreter Jose Lopez of LULAC, Sierra says he regularly put in 17 hours a day and never earned overtime. “This is the way it works: If I go and do this cleaning and it took me seven or eight hours I would only get paid three hours. No more hours, because they say it’s the cost of production, and that’s the way it is.”
Even after working as many hours as he did, Sierra says he only cleared about $500 a month. In addiition, he says, he was injured on the job and had to wait five months to get medical attention because he had no transportation and no way to pay for his treatment.
Sierra says he ended up getting fired after missing work for a broken arm and arguing with the company over two weeks of vacation he thought was owed to him.
He’s been sleeping on the kitchen floor in a barren apartment rented by another former egg farm worker named Jacinto Reyes. Reyes says he was also fired after just two months of work. “They fired me on the day that I was physically assaulted by a manager that operated the machines.”
Reyes says he was beaten up after getting into an argument with the machine operator who was mocking his job performance in front of other workers. Reyes says he reported the assault to his supervisor, but instead of seeing his attacker get in trouble, he was forced to take the blame for the entire incident. “They just told me: You’re fired. We don’t need you anymore. You can go home.”
Going home sounds reasonable enough. But for both Reyes and Sierra, home is Mexico more than 2,000 miles away, and getting fired has left them stranded. No money. No transportation and few options.
Reyes says he’s gotten some assistance from the city of Lewiston and from a local food pantry. All told, he’s taken in four other egg farm workers who found themselves in similar circumstances.
Sixty-two-year-old Eliseo Garza worked for just one week cleaning chicken barns before he says he was fired for speaking up about the lack of safety equipment. “They wouldn’t even give us the gloves to remove the dead corpses–some of those chickens had been lying there for days. You grab ’em, they would fall apart.”
“I categorically deny the fact that safety equipment is not available to our employees,” says Chris Grimbilas, a spokesman for Quality Egg of New England and Maine Contract Farming, two of the companies that took over operations from DeCoster.
Both Grimbilas and the regional director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration say a recent investigation of that claim was found to be without merit. The OSHA director declined to talk on tape. As for alleged wage and hour violations, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Labor says he can neither confirm nor deny that an investigation is taking place.
Grimbilas says he’s not aware of any specific complaint. “I can tell you this: We do have somebody from the Department of Labor who comes in on a periodic basis and reviews our employment records, including our time cards, to make sure that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, and we have not been found on any of these audits to have an issue.”
Grimbilas says confidentiality rules prevent him from discussing why a particular employee is fired. But he says his companies adhere to a strict policy of written warnings before any such action is taken. In addition, he says employees are always provided with medical attention and an interpreter as soon as they report an injury.
He also rejects the idea that any worker is not paid time-and-a-half after working more than 40 hours–although he says there have been instances where some workers have been asked to cut back for their own good.
“We’re not slave drivers here. We don’t want people working until they drop,” he says. “That would be unreasonable. So if they do work excessive hours where it could potentially pose them an exhaustion or a health hazard then, yes, we do indeed ask them to cut back.”
Jose Lopez of LULAC thinks the company is exploiting workers who speak little English, work in isolated conditions and are desperate to send hard-earned money back to their families. And that’s why he says the advocacy group is getting involved.
“We’re meeting with every single employee that wants to come out publicly,” he says. “We’re going to record their voices and get it out to the media. I think the public needs to know what’s going on here in Maine and the nation too.”
This week LULAC bought bus tickets for several of the workers interviewed for this story. And on Friday, Lopez and other members of LULAC will also testify against a bill that would exempt the former DeCoster Egg Farm from having to pay overtime.
It’s a bill that Grimbilas says did not originate with the agribusiness and one he says that will not change the company’s plan to continue paying overtime, whether it is approved by the Legislature or not.