AUGUSTA, Maine — Francisco Gonzalez is a supervisor at the DeCoster-owned Quality Egg farm in Turner. He says he works between 70 and 80 hours a week.
Gonzalez said Friday that he was asked by management to tell the Legislature’s Labor Committee about his positive work experience at the plant. The Lewiston resident said he was unaware that the bill he was asked to support would repeal a state law that requires DeCoster to pay workers overtime.
“I’m confused now,” he told the panel. “I did not know what this was about.”
The emotional public hearing on LD 1207 spilled into the hallway, then the lobby. There, Chris Grimbilas, a representative from DeCoster, exchanged accusations with Joey Lopez of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Lopez had accused DeCoster of labor violations and overseeing a slavelike work environment.
Grimbilas called Lopez a liar.
Gonzalez went outside the Burton Cross Building to calm down. As he sat on a granite table and waited for his ride home, he was asked whether he still supported the bill.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I’m an hourly employee, so it would probably cost me a lot of money. They asked me to come here to talk about how I worked my way up … I don’t know where I stand now.”
Gonzalez said he was treated fairly by the company. But other employees who testified Friday had other stories that they say prove that DeCoster still engaged in the kind of activity that was the impetus for the 1975 law that required DeCoster to pay a minimum wage and overtime, as well as a 1997 provision that allowed workers there to unionize.
Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, the bill’s sponsor, is trying to repeal both provisions. He said the law unfairly punishes one farm for problems that no longer exist.
Federal law doesn’t allow agricultural workers to earn overtime, but Maine changed its law in 1975 to make it so the DeCoster plant would. That bill, like Crafts’ proposal, is specific to the DeCoster plant because it’s limited to an egg-processing facility that has 300,000 laying birds.
No other farm in Maine meets that definition.
According to testimony from James Tierney, a former state representative from Lisbon, the 1975 amendment was introduced because Tierney had heard so many complaints about the working conditions at the DeCoster plant.
Tierney’s bill received unanimous support from the Labor Committee and both chambers of the Legislature, where the majority was split between Democrats and Republicans.
The bill was signed into law by Gov. James Longley, who according to Tierney asked the Lisbon lawmaker, “This bill will do something to help change those awful conditions in Turner at DeCoster, right?”
Crafts and representatives for DeCoster said the law no longer was necessary. Before the hearing, Grimbilas denied accusations from LULAC, Lopez’s group, that the plant already was circumventing the overtime law.
Grimbilas said a recent audit by the Maine Department of Labor vindicated the company.
According to a recent news report, the Department of Labor has refused to confirm or deny whether there was an investigation.
Grimbilas denied that DeCoster or its affiliates had asked Crafts to submit the bill. Grimbilas testified in favor of the proposal, echoing Crafts’ argument that the law unfairly targeted DeCoster.
Grimbilas said that the 36-year-old overtime provision had forced DeCoster to “rework our entire corporate structure.”
Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, later asked Grimbilas whether the company did not want to pay employees overtime. Grimbilas said the company had invested a lot of money in the payroll system and that it has “no immediate intention to go back to not paying overtime.”
The hearing grew increasingly tense as LULAC introduced two Hispanic workers who said DeCoster had recruited them from Mexico. As Lopez translated, Jacinto Reyes described his seven-month work experience as the “worst seven months of my life,” adding that he had been assaulted at DeCoster and subjected to poor working conditions.
Grimbilas said the accusations were false.
It’s not the first time DeCoster has faced such allegations.
In 1993, a DeCoster manager was charged with recruiting 17 illegal aliens to Turner facilities and helping them obtain false identification documents.
In 1995, the state won a civil suit against DeCoster Egg Farms after claiming the company violated the Maine Civil Rights and Unfair Practices Act. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court said the Latino workers, housed in a DeCoster-owned trailer park, had been barred access to legal counsel and had been “threatened, intimidated and harassed” by management.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the company in 1996 after a large number of workers’ compensation claims were filed. OSHA fined the company $3.6 million.
Grimbilas said the company was routinely inspected by OSHA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On Friday, labor advocates decried the proposal as a rollback of worker protections for a company with a checkered history. The groups also opposed a measure adopted in 1997 that would allow workers to unionize.
See more news from the Sun Journal at http://www.sunjournal.com/.