Jose Anaya Renteria says he was locked in a freezer. Martina Aguilar Aragon says Latino workers were paid less than their white colleagues. And Susana Gonzalez says her bosses told her not to disclose work-related injuries at the hospital.
If they spoke out, according a lawsuit filed in federal court, their bosses threatened to have the undocumented workers deported.
The lawsuit accuses Che Ku and Leng Ku, described as owners of Star Ocean Food and several Sun Foods grocery stores in the Twin Cities, of mistreating workers. The 37-page complaint alleges that employees were locked in stores and a warehouse beyond their regular shifts until work was done, belittled and harassed, and underpaid for their work.
“I was treated as a slave,” said Gonzalez, who attributes two miscarriages to work and injuries she sustained at a warehouse.
Che Ku and Leng Ku could not be reached for comment. Calls to Star Ocean Food and Sun Foods groceries were not returned.
Attorneys for the workers also pointed to documents prepared by the U.S. Department of Labor that back up the allegations.
The department wrote that it has detected “criminal activities of involuntary servitude” and said that locking the workers in buildings after hours falls under state laws that prohibit kidnapping. It accuses the owners of wage violations, unlawful discrimination and witness tampering and obstruction of justice because of intimidation and threats of deportation if the workers provided the Department of Labor with testimony.
Although the workers are in the country illegally and unauthorized to work in the United States, they may be eligible to stay if granted visas that are given to people who are victims of a crime. The Labor Department’s findings are the first step in obtaining such visas, their attorney, Phil Fishman, said.
Of the 12 workers, two are still employed at the companies, according to the lawsuit. Several others quit work this year.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, says Latino employees were treated differently than others at Star Ocean Food and Sun Foods groceries.
Aragon said that when she was in charge of payroll, she noticed that Latino employees were not paid for all the hours they worked. Another plaintiff, Serfi Elezar Morales Lima, said the company avoided paying him overtime by scheduling him to work 30 hours per week at one store and 30 hours per week at another, both owned by the family.
“He was told he would be reported to immigration and that he would be fired for failing to do whatever the owner or management told him to do,” according to the lawsuit.
When a Department of Labor investigator visited a store in 2015, according to the lawsuit, Lima was told to leave immediately and warned he would be fired if he spoke with the representative.
Gonzalez began working for the company after arriving from Mexico in 2007. She suffered two miscarriages while working there, she alleged, one after she had to carry heavy boxes while pregnant and another after a box of bananas fell on her.
The second miscarriage occurred while she was working, but the lawsuit said she was told to keep working. She eventually went to the hospital but “was told by her supervisor that if she told hospital workers she had been injured at work, immigration would be called and she would be deported,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive damages and an end to the labor violations.
“The conditions were deplorable,” said Rachel Petersen, an attorney representing the workers. “Their psychological trauma, we found, from talking to these people ran pretty deep.”