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Long hours and ‘holes that let the wind in.’ Mexican workers allege abuse by Escalon dairy

Two undocumented Mexican immigrants are seeking to obtain class-action status in a lawsuit they have filed against a dairy that they say cheated them out of wages and subjected them to what they claim were abysmal living conditions.
Two undocumented Mexican immigrants are seeking to obtain class-action status in a lawsuit they have filed against a dairy that they say cheated them out of wages and subjected them to what they claim were abysmal living conditions. Associated Press file

Two undocumented Mexican immigrants are seeking to obtain class-action status in a lawsuit they have filed against an Escalon dairy that they say cheated them out of wages and subjected them to abysmal living conditions.

Plaintiffs Hernan Guzman-Padilla and Cipriano Benites say they worked for years at G & H Dairy, the defendant in the suit filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. Besides state statutes governing wages and hours, working conditions and racial discrimination, the action also charges that the dairy violated federal law “by intentionally recruiting, hiring, and systematically underpaying solely Mexican immigrant laborers to staff their dairies, on the belief that they would quietly accept the aforementioned unlawful working conditions, wages, and housing.”

“Specifically,” the lawsuit says, “the defendants sought to hire only workers they viewed as vulnerable due to their race and alienage by tapping into an informal network for recruitment, paying them substandard wages they knew no white, U.S. Citizen worker would accept, providing them with housing that they failed to maintain or repair that no white, U.S. Citizen worker would accept, and perpetuating an abusive workplace environment in order to benefit themselves economically through the exploitation of the plaintiffs and similarly situated Mexican laborers.”

The suit was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation attorneys in Sacramento. Besides Guzman-Padilla and Benites, it seeks to represent “all Hispanic laborers of foreign alienage” who worked at the dairy in the four years before the filing of the suit and through the conclusion of the action. The class action would also cover the workers’ families.

The Sacramento filing follows an executive order signed last week by President Donald J. Trump that calls for the construction of a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico. The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, however, said that the case has nothing to with the political controversy that has erupted in the relationship between the two countries and how it might affect labor relations in California’s annual $46.7 billion agricultural industry.

“This is a suit about seeking compliance with existing law, and the things that are going on in the political arena really aren’t part of the suit,” said CRLAF litigation director Dawson Morton. “I do think it’s important that employers seek to attract immigrant labor often because they view them as vulnerable, as we allege here, and that maybe gets left out of the political discussion.

“The wall might divide the two nations, but our concern is with the workers who are here and who are working now.”

G & H Dairy representatives were not immediately available for comment Monday afternoon.

According to the lawsuit, Guzman-Padilla worked at G & H from 2002 until May 2016 while Benites was employed there from 2011 through June 2015. The two of them were paid “a fixed semimonthly salary regardless of the hours they worked,” the suit said. Usually, they worked for four 10-hour days in a row with one day of rest, while other employees worked six straight 10-hour days before being allowed to take one day off. The milking and cleaning operation sometimes required employees to work beyond the 10-hour shift without them being paid for overtime, according to the lawsuit.

Plaintiffs did not always receive adequate meal and rest periods, and they were required to attend safety training sessions on their own time or during their lunch periods without being paid, according to the suit. They also had to pay for their own work boots.

Dairy owners Gerard Van de Pol and Henry Van de Pol provided housing to the employees, but the plaintiffs’ suit describes it as decrepit. Guzman-Padilla said he lived in a trailer on South Van Allen Road that had a broken toilet, a malfunctioning water heater, unsealed windows, moldy walls and rotting floors that allowed for an infestation of mice. Guzman-Padilla said in the suit that he had previously lived in owner-provided housing that “was practically abandoned with holes that let the wind in, as well as allowing rats and cockroaches to enter the dwelling.” Guzman-Padilla said that when he and his wife tried to fix up his housing, “Defendant Henry Van de Pol was abusive and yelled at them.”

Benites alleged that he and other workers lived in small single rooms called “cuartitos” that didn’t have plumbing or a bathroom or internal heating and were overrun by fleas, cockroaches and rats.

“On information and belief, no white employees of defendants Henry and Gerard Van de Pol are provided poor quality housing, refused repairs, or required to live with vermin, water leaks, mold, rotting flooring, non-functioning heating, or without bathroom and kitchen facilities,” the suit said.

Mexican employees at the ranch also were subjected to derogatory racial comments, the suit said, with Gerard Van de Pol and his son, Daniel, a supervisor at the dairy, calling them “beaners” and threatening them with comments directed at their illegal immigration status.

“I can run you off this ranch any time I want to,” the lawsuit claims the employees were told by the Van de Pols. “If you’re not happy here, then you can go home.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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