ST. FRANCIS, Maine — The owner of a northern Maine Christmas tree farm is defending his decision to use bonded foreign workers at his facility despite questions the move has raised from residents and one longtime advocate of laws protecting Maine employees’ jobs.
Kelco Industries owner Doug Kell Sr. freely admits to hiring four Jamaican workers at his farm in St. Francis and said he was forced to do so after local employees proved consistently unreliable.
Based in Milbridge, the company makes and sells Christmas trees and wreath-making supplies. Wholesale Christmas trees are grown at the St. Francis site, which has been in operation since 1980.
On Monday, Kell, speaking from the company headquarters in Milbridge, said the Jamaican workers are fully eligible for employment with federal work visas and had been working at NewLand Nursery and Landscaping in Ellsworth before heading north.
The tree farm is adjacent to property owned by a family member of Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, a longtime labor rights advocate who has fought against the use of foreign workers in the Maine forestry industry.
“This really kind of floored me,” Jackson said Monday morning. “I just couldn’t imagine them being that stupid to bring in foreign workers [at Kelco] but, by God, they were.”
The senator said after receiving calls from several constituents reporting they had been laid off from Kelco and replaced by foreign workers he had contacted officials with the Maine Department of Labor because, regardless of the Jamaican workers’ legal status to work in this country, Kelco Industries must first apply to the Department of Labor for a permit to employ bonded foreign workers.
“They may be all legal for NewLand [Nursery and Landscaping],” Jackson said, “but you can’t pass them back and forth.”
Jackson said he subsequently got word from the state labor officials the matter had been referred to their federal counterparts.
“On Friday morning I heard from the [Maine] Labor Department and they said, ‘Yes, there is a problem at Kelco,’” Jackson said. “They told me they had filed a complaint on my behalf with the United States Department of Labor.”
Allegations connected with the foreign workers’ visa program are handled at the federal level, according to Julie Rabinowitz, Maine Department of Labor director of communications.
“They will make a determination if there is enough information to open an investigation,” Rabinowitz said.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Labor had requested media inquiries be in writing and had not responded to those questions by press time.
Kell said representatives with the U.S. Department of Labor were scheduled to meet with him Monday but that meeting had been postponed at the department’s request.
But when they do decide to meet with him, Kell said, he’s more than ready.
“I have all the paperwork for them to look at,” he said. “This is the first time I’d ever really sat down and compared employee performance year to year and I’ll show them that.”
What Kell said he discovered after looking at those comparisons is a history of employees at the St. Francis facility doing subpar work, when they bothered to show up at all.
“Last year, I had 20 workers up there and they did not begin to put in the hours that 10 workers are doing now,” he said. “What we have are young people that really do not want to work.”
The problem, he said, is not new and goes back decades.
“In 1984 or ’85, I set up a wreath-making shop in St. Francis to create some jobs for the locals,” Kell said. “The ones that came to work thought it was a sewing bee and came to just socialize so I had to shut it down because it was losing money.”
Not long after that, Kell said he moved some of the projects from Milbridge to St. Francis to provide year-round employment for residents, with similar results.
“They did not want to work during the winter,” he said. “They wanted to be laid off so they could collect unemployment.”
Kell is quick to say he has a solid core of 11 good, productive workers from the St. Francis area, but it’s not enough.
“Last year at this time, we had 20 workers,” he said. “My problem is some of them showed up, would leave after two hours [and] might come back or not.”
Even the better workers proved unreliable Kell said, thanks to a state system he claims rewards those who choose not to work.
“There’s a problem up there,” he said. “The [Maine Department of Human Services] gets to them and tells them, ‘Don’t make too much money and we can get you food stamps and reduced rent and health care.’”
Saying he was fed up, Kell decided to contract four legally bonded workers from Jamaica.
Because of some miscommunication with his St. Francis facility manager, Kell said six locals were hired before the Jamaicans showed up.
“I told [the manager] he was not authorized to hire them,” Kell Sr. said. “I told him to let them go [and] I can show their work performance was not good.”
It’s a situation with which area residents must come to terms, he said.
“These [Jamaican] workers are legal, no question about it,” Kell Sr. said. “If I want to stay in business, I need to stay profitable.”