Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is suing a Stearns Country dairy farm for wage theft.
A lawsuit filed by Ellison’s office in Stearns County District Court Monday alleges Evergreen Acres, a large dairy producer based in Paynesville, failed to pay at least $3 million in worker’s wages, illegally charged rent for substandard onsite housing and maintained a culture of fear and violence.
According to the lawsuit, many of Evergreen’s employees are unauthorized workers from the Oaxaca region of Mexico and speak little to no English. The suit alleges that workers received threats from Evergreen ownership and management in regards to their status as unauthorized workers in order to discourage them from complaining about rent and pay.
“I want to thank those workers who came forward amid these threats, intimidation and sometimes violence to tell the truth about what was going on,” Ellison said. “Thanks to them, we’re going to be able to hold Evergreen accountable for their bad conduct.”
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The Attorney General’s Office said they sent a civil investigative demand to Evergreen last March and discovered the extent of the housing violations in November.
Messages attempting to reach Evergreen Acres were not returned.
The lawsuit alleges:
Evergreen systemically shaved hours off of employee paystubs. The suit alleges workers were not compensated fairly for all hours worked.
“One worker put in 180 hours of work in two weeks and then saw that a full quarter of his pay had vanished from his paycheck,” Ellison said in a press conference on Monday.
Evergreen refused to pay employees wages for the beginning and end of employment. The suit says most employees did not receive a paycheck for the first two weeks they were working at the company. When employees quit between a pay period, they often did not receive that final check.
Evergreen made deductions from wages without written authorization. Evergreen operated as a landlord and provided onsite housing to its workers. However, the suit alleges Evergreen deducted housing payments from employee’s paychecks without providing proper documentation of wage deductions.
Evergreen failed to make and preserve employment records. The company did not provide employees with any written information about how they are paid, which is required by law. Evergreen has admitted to destroying the timecards and timesheets employees used to punch in and out of work.
Ellison said the onsite housing Evergreen offered to employees violated Minnesota’s health and safety laws. The suit alleges that many of the workers lived in windowless bedrooms with plywood walls, unfinished electrical sockets and only space heaters for warmth. Some units did not have an onsite bathroom and other workers lived in garages, barns and other buildings “not fit for human habitation.”
“[The residences] are frankly not within the bounds of human decency,” Ellison said.
The Attorney General’s Office said they are seeking restitution for affected employees up to $25,000 in civil penalties for each violation. Ellison said it’s possible Evergreen owners could face criminal charges, but any criminal prosecution will be determined by the counties.
Ellison said his office is partnering with the Department of Homeland Security to grant deferred action to affected workers so they can participate in the investigation without fear of retaliation related to immigration status.