PORTLAND — A longtime employee of Austin “Jack” DeCoster alleges in a federal lawsuit that Mexican-American workers at DeCoster’s egg operations in Maine were treated as “virtual slaves,” valued only for their willingness to do dangerous or demeaning tasks.

Homero Ramirez, a 56-year-old Lewiston resident who was born in Mexico, is suing DeCoster and DeCoster’s businesses in Turner and Winthrop. Ramirez is claiming discrimination based on race, national origin and age, and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal Family Medical Leave acts.

Ramirez is seeking unspecified damages, according to his complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court last month.

DeCoster Egg Farms, which has been split into spinoff businesses, 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 claiming racial discrimination in housing and working conditions.

According to Ramirez’s complaint, DeCoster frequently said he didn’t want non-Mexican workers because they didn’t accept his authority and didn’t 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 show DeCoster’s authority, Ramirez was required to do humiliating, demeaning and dangerous tasks without safety precautions as other employees watched, according to the complaint. One example in the complaint describes a hazing incident in which Ramirez cleaned and oiled 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 lawsuit, called Ramirez’s claims “absolutely nonsensical,” particularly the allegation of slave labor, which Bates said is just meant to inflame the public.

Bates denied allegations that Ramirez – whom Bates said made a six-figure salary – and other Mexican-American workers have faced discrimination. He said none was ever asked to do work that DeCoster himself hadn’t done.

“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 claims that DeCoster hazed and bullied him in the spring and fall of 2010 in an attempt to get Ramirez to resign so his job could go to a younger worker.

The complaint alleges that 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 an event; and tried to force him into an office job even though he knew Ramirez couldn’t do paperwork in English.

Ramirez claims he suffered emotional and mental injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression and anxiety. He went on medical leave, and on instructions from his medical provider, did not return to work, according to the complaint.

Shortly after Ramirez gave notice of his health problems last October, DeCoster stopped paying his salary and benefits and, later, his electricity and gas bills and health insurance, the complaint says.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]