Two Michigan greenhouses are at the center of a lawsuit over allegations of wage theft and claims that workers were exposed to hazardous chemicals while harvesting crops
Three farm workers are suing Michigan greenhouses, Mastronardi Produce and Maroa Farms over claims that were exposed to hazardous chemicals while harvesting crops and were allegedly subjected to a deceptive bonus program.
Benjamin Lopez, Oscar Carlos Lopez Ramirez, and Ramona Reyes Saucedo are the plaintiffs in the case. They filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court on June 1 against their former employers Mastronardi Produce and Maroa Farms. The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and Farmworker Justice are representing them.
When commenting on the matter, Anna Hill Galendez, lead attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said:
“Unfortunately, we see repeatedly in the cases that come into our office that many farmworkers are working in unsafe and unhealthy working conditions while performing essential work that puts food on our tables…We see it as really important that these abuses be brought to light, and farmworkers deserve, at the very minimum, working in safe and healthy workplaces.”
Maroa Farms is a subsidiary of Mastronardi Produce. It specializes in growing tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers at its two-million-square-foot indoor greenhouses near Coldwater. It employs about 200 seasonal farmworkers each year to help harvest the fruits and vegetables “for the Sunset brand.”
Lopez began working at Maroa Farms in August 2020 and stayed until February 2021, while Reyes Saucedo worked from 2014 to 2020. Lopez Ramirez worked at the farm from November 2019 to June 2021. According to the suit, they were “regularly exposed to pesticides like Virkon S without proper protective equipment or training which led to adverse health effects.” To combat a tomato virus, the farm increased to use of the disinfectant during the 2020-2021 season.
On top of that, farmworkers claimed in November 2020 that they began “noticing a strong odor of bleach in one greenhouse.” Despite their concerns, the farmworkers were “told to keep working in greenhouse rows even as chemicals were being sprayed on plants.”
Eventually, some of the farmworkers began experiencing “ongoing medical issues like nose bleeds, burning eyes, headaches, and skin reactions,” according to the suit. Additionally, Lopez “described seeing piles of bloody tissue paper in employee bathrooms during disinfection periods.” The suit further stated:
“When greenhouse workers were unable to work because of adverse reactions to the disinfectants they were told to take a break. If they were then not able to continue working, they were sent home without pay.”
Reyes Saucedo chimed in and said, “frequent nose bleeds and other health issues made it difficult to properly care for her family during this time…She can’t believe even nowadays in 2022 employers treat employees in that way.”
In addition to the health concerns, the plaintiffs are also accusing the farm and Mastronardi Produce of wage theft. For example, Reyes Saucedo alleges she “worked sporadic hours doing janitorial work, sometimes up to 70 hours a week, without overtime.” On top of that, the suit details how a “false and misleading bonus structure created a moving target for farmworkers.” It explains how “they were allegedly promised bonuses for harvesting more quickly, but constantly changing production standards put the financial incentives out of reach.”
“For migrant workers, this creates a particular vulnerability because they rely on those recruitment promises when deciding which job to take and forgo job opportunities…They often move their whole family for these jobs and are reliant on their employer and the employment conditions they find themselves in once they arrive…We hope that this lawsuit will bring accountability for those practices so that workers like Ramona, other plaintiffs, and their coworkers are not subjected to these conditions in the future.”