From KJOnline.com, Kennebec Journal, Ann S. Kim, 21 Sept 2011.
Longtime employee: Workers treated as ‘virtual slaves’ at Maine egg operations
PORTLAND, ME — A longtime employee of Jack DeCoster alleges in a federal lawsuit that Mexican-American workers at DeCoster’s Maine egg operations were treated as “virtual slaves,” valued only for their willingness to perform dangerous or demeaning tasks.
Homero Ramirez, a 56-year-old Lewiston resident born in Mexico, is suing DeCoster and DeCoster businesses in Turner and Winthrop for discrimination based on race, national origin and age and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the state and federal Family Medical Leave Acts. He is seeking unspecified damages, according to his complaint filed in U.S. District Court last month.
The former DeCoster Egg Farms has a history of health and labor violations. In 2002, the company reached a $3.2 million settlement with the Mexican government and migrant workers who sued over alleged racial discrimination in housing and working conditions. The company has been split up into a number of spin-off businesses.
According to Ramirez’s complaint, DeCoster frequently said he did not want non-Mexican workers because they did not accept his authority and did not do whatever was asked as willingly as Mexican workers did. Ramirez, a plant manager, was instructed not to hire non-Mexican workers and to “get rid of the gringos,” according to the complaint.
To demonstrate DeCoster’s authority, Ramirez was required to perform humiliating, demeaning and dangerous tasks without safety precautions as other employees watched, according to the complaint.
One example in the complaint describes Ramirez cleaning and oiling large machinery without shutting it down.
Ramirez also accuses DeCoster of making him the brunt of ethnic slurs and jokes about his inability to read and write English and making threatening statements like, “I’m going to take a two-by-four and hit you in the head.” DeCoster also allegedly told Ramirez not to get medical attention for work-related injuries.
Daniel Bates, the lawyer representing DeCoster and most of the 11 business entities named in the suit, called Ramirez’s claims “absolutely nonsensical” — particularly the allegation of slave labor, which he said was just a means to inflame the public. He denied allegations that Ramirez, whom he said made a six-figure salary, or other Mexican-American workers, have been discriminated against.
He said none had ever been asked to perform work that DeCoster himself hasn’t performed.
“Workers at Ramirez’s place of employment are hired based on their skills and work ethic and not based on ethnicity and race,” Bates said Tuesday. “He’s absolutely wrong, that will easily be shown.”
Quinn Collins, Ramirez’s lawyer, said he believes they have enough evidence and witnesses to bear out the allegations. “We’re not flinching from our complaint,” he said.
Ramirez’s complaint contends that DeCoster hazed and bullied Ramirez in the spring and fall of 2010 in an attempt to get Ramirez to resign so his job could go to a younger worker. DeCoster once screamed at Ramirez after he hired a non-Mexican worker at a grain mill, gave credit to a younger worker in front of visitors for work Ramirez had done in preparation for their event and tried to force him into an office job although he knew Ramirez couldn’t do paperwork in English, according to the complaint.
Ramirez claims he suffered emotional and mental injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression and anxiety. He did not return to work, as instructed by his medical provider, according to the complaint.