WJCNY Files Class Action on Behalf of Puerto Rican Migrant Farm Laborers Illegally Denied Work by Upstate New York Employer After Hurricane Maria
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
John Marsella, Esq. 585-325-3050 ext. 2002
Robert McCreanor, Esq. 845-331-6615 ext. 1007
Rochester, NY – On September 14, 2018, the Worker Justice Center of New York filed a complaint in U.S. District Court seeking class action status on behalf of former employees of W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. and related companies owned and operated by Dan and Mark Henry in Eden, New York. Since at least 2001, W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. has recruited and profited from the labor of U.S. citizen residents of Villalba, Puerto Rico who have reliably traveled each season at their own expense to upstate New York and worked long hours in the company’s fields and packing facilities.
Beginning in 2016, W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. began to take steps to replace their U.S. citizen Puerto Rican employees with temporary foreign guest workers under the H-2A visa program. Under federal law, agricultural employers are prohibited from displacing U.S. workers in favor of foreign guest workers. Moreover, all U.S. employees are entitled to the same benefits and working conditions as their H-2A guest worker counterparts. Seeking to evade these legal requirements, W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. drastically reduced the work hours of its U.S. citizen employees, misrepresented the rights of U.S. workers to higher paying employment opportunities provided to H-2A guest workers, summarily evicted U.S. farm workers from their housing to make room for H-2A guest workers, withheld wages from U.S. workers in order to coerce them into signing false declarations as purported evidence of abandonment of their jobs, and failed to recruit and re-hire their U.S. workers as required by law. The company did this during the same time that their Puerto Rican employees’ home community was devastated by Hurricane Maria, when they were in desperate need of employment.
Agricultural employers have numerous incentives for employing H-2A guest workers instead of domestic U.S. workers. Guest worker visas are tied to one employer. At any point in time during an H-2A guest workers’ period of employment, an employer may fire the worker and report him or her to the government as out of status. This dramatically skews the balance of power between workers and employers and functionally prevents employees from making complaints or otherwise addressing employment abuses for fear of risking their immigration status as well as their source of income. Additionally, employers are exempt from paying U.S. Social Security and Medicare taxes for H-2A guest workers, and H-2A workers are not entitled to unemployment insurance benefits. The H-2A system also permits unfettered discrimination in the hiring of workers because the recruitment happens outside the territory of the United States.
This case is brought by five former W.D. Henry & Sons, Inc. employees who seek relief for themselves and the more than 60 other U.S. citizen Puerto Rican workers who were similarly discriminated against and abandoned by their long-time employer. The lawsuit alleges that the company’s treatment of its workers violated federal H-2A regulations, the Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and New York Labor Law.
The Plaintiffs in this case are represented by the Worker Justice Center of New York (WJCNY). WJCNY Staff Attorney John Marsella and WJCNY Legal Director Robert McCreanor serve as attorneys of record in the litigation and are assisted by WJCNY Paralegal Ken Wolkin and WJCNY Outreach and Education Coordinator Irene Sanchez. WJCNY is a non-profit organization that pursues justice for those denied human rights with a focus on agricultural and other low wage workers, through legal representation, community empowerment and advocacy for institutional change. WJCNY’s Litigation Program builds on decades of success in achieving justice for victims of wage theft and other workplace abuses throughout New York State. Our offices have represented thousands of low-wage workers across industries such as agriculture, construction, food and service, and domestic work and recovered over $10 million in unpaid wages on behalf of our clients.