Eighteen migrant workers who came to Maine for the blueberry harvest have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against a farm labor recruiter, two blueberry businesses and several housing providers, saying they were not paid for much of their work and were housed in overcrowded, inadequate conditions.
The lawsuit, filed July 3 on behalf of the workers by Pine Tree Legal Assistance, claims multiple violations of federal wage and labor laws during the 2008 harvesting season and names as defendants a farm labor contractor, Carol Paul, who recruited and transported the migrant workers; two blueberry businesses, Coastal Blueberry Service Inc. and Hancock Foods Inc., and several owners of buildings where the workers lived.
The suit says that Paul, working on behalf of the companies, lied to the workers about the number of hours available to them and the wages they would earn. He then transported them in overcrowded buses from several Southern and mid-Atlantic states to Maine. Once in Maine, the suit claims, Paul charged the workers rent for housing that they were told would be free, and packed them into overcrowded homes and trailers. Paul and the companies also allegedly stole some of the workers’ wages, kept shoddy records and retaliated against workers when they sought legal help, according to the suit.
The 18 men and women named as plaintiffs are U.S. citizens born in Haiti or are Haitians with legal permanent residence status. Most live in Florida.
The lawsuit seeks $204,969 for statutory damages and lost wages, and an unspecified amount for the workers’ physical and emotional harm.
“We’re bringing this case because of the incredibly horrific nature of what our clients suffered, and to make sure that it doesn’t happen in the future,” Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, said Monday. “We have not filed a federal lawsuit of this (type) for many years.”
Heald declined to make any of the 18 plaintiffs available for an interview, saying they were no longer in Maine.
Jack McGuire, an attorney for the two companies, which are owned by the same family, did not return several calls for comment, but an attorney for Coastal Blueberry Service of Ellsworth and Hancock Foods of Hancock told The Associated Press that the companies “firmly deny having engaged in violations.”
Maine has about 60,000 acres of commercial blueberry barrens, and the industry’s economic impact in Maine was about $250 million in 2007, according to the University of Maine.
Carol Paul could not be reached. Paul was last federally licensed to perform farm labor contract work in July 2008. The U.S. Department of Labor now lists him as banned from farm labor contracting.
The Maine Department of Labor estimates that about 1,200 seasonal workers come to Maine each year to harvest blueberries, apples, broccoli and other vegetables and agricultural products. Much of that work is regulated under the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which spells out minimum housing, safety and transportation standards for migrant workers.
Pine Tree Legal’s civil lawsuit could only result in financial penalties. Criminal migrant labor charges could be pursued by the federal government, but it isn’t clear whether federal officials are investigating or whether the companies have had previous labor violations.
Under the law, farm labor contractors are responsible for finding seasonal laborers and paying them. The contractors must disclose the terms and conditions of employment, pay workers on time, provide an itemized list of earnings and deductions, and keep payroll records for three years. Housing and transportation must also meet federal standards for health and safety.
Pine Tree Legal has worked with migrant workers since the 1970s to solve legal disputes and rights cases. The lawsuit is the largest legal dispute over migrant worker rights in Maine in recent years, Heald said.
In all, the 302-page lawsuit alleges more than 250 violations. It outlines each plaintiff’s experience, and there are many similarities. In each case, Paul allegedly approached the worker, promising plentiful work hours and good wages, mostly around $9 per hour, working to harvest or process blueberries.
Some of the workers allegedly paid $100 for their transportation to Maine. The plaintiffs said the buses were overcrowded, with workers sitting two or three to a single seat, or in some cases, forced to stand for part of the journey.
When they arrived in Maine, their accommodations were substandard, the lawsuit alleges. In Sullivan, 25 to 30 workers lived in a single trailer and shared a single bathroom and stove. In some cases they slept on floors, in hallways or in the kitchen. In another instance, the workers allegedly were not provided with toilet paper, beds or mattresses, and had to sleep on a layer of blankets.
One man housed in an apartment on Stewart Lane in Augusta was allegedly forced to sleep first on a porch, then later in an abandoned car, after he was abruptly fired after arriving in Maine to work. In one case, access to a toilet was so limited that a worker allegedly had to use plastic bags to relieve himself. A female plaintiff was expected to share a bedroom with male workers, and when she refused, slept in a car.
In other instances, the contractor allegedly withheld wages or failed to provide itemized accounts of workers’ pay.
Managers of two real estate trusts that owned property where the migrant workers were allegedly housed could not be located.
Cynthia and Galen Thibodeau, along with their son Benjamin Hanscom, were named in the suit for allegedly hosting workers in unsanitary conditions at a property in Ellsworth. They said Monday that they had rented the large home to someone who did not tell them migrant workers would be living there.
Cynthia Thibodeau said as many as 16 people were living in the house, which was originally designed with six bedrooms. Thibodeau said when she realized there were so many people living there, she tried to help by giving them food. On Thanksgiving that year, she hosted 15 of them for a holiday meal.
Thibodeau disputed some of the allegations in the suit and said she did not know that her property was subject to federal regulations.
“If I had four men workers who wanted to rent one half of the apartment, I’d think nothing of it, but 16 workers in one house is a lot,” she said. “But they had signed a lease and I was kind of bound until the lease is up. I was trying to help them, because it’s a hard life (being a migrant worker).”
When she renegotiated the lease the next year in June 2009, she limited the number of people living there to 13.
Jessica Felix-Romero, a communications director at Farm Worker Justice, a national advocacy group for agricultural workers, said civil cases against farm labor contractors or growers are difficult to bring because the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act prevents attorneys from collecting fees in private lawsuits. If the government files a complaint in a labor case, any fines or penalties collected from the contractors or growers cannot be paid to laborers.
Adding to the difficulty is the precarious immigration status of many migrant workers, some of whom face deportation if they come to the attention of authorities.
That means few attorneys are willing to take cases, said Felix-Romero.
Farm labor contractors, although required to register with the federal government, are not carefully monitored, and often run fly-by-night businesses with scant funds to pay any fines, she said.
Attorneys who bring suits alleging violations of workers’ rights have sought to make growers more responsible, because they often have the ability to pay fines and fees.
In other federal cases, Felix-Romero said, settlements have included stipulations that growers cease using farm labor contractors.