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An Eden farm is at the center of a migrant worker lawsuit

During the growing season three years ago, and every year since, Rolando Diaz Reyes made the trek from Puerto Rico to the W.D. Henry and Sons farm in Eden.

Like the 60 or so other migrant workers from Villalba, a small town in central Puerto Rico, Diaz Reyes became part of the workforce that, year in and year out, planted, cultivated and harvested the farm's 300 acres of vegetables.

But then two things happened – Hurricane Maria and, according to Diaz Reyes and other workers, W.D. Henry's decision to replace them with documented farm workers from Mexico.

"They displaced U.S. workers with foreign workers," said John Marsella, a lawyer for Diaz Reyes and four other former workers from Puerto Rico. "And they were pretty brazen, pretty clear about what they were doing."

In a new federal lawsuit, Diaz Reyes and the other workers are suing W.D. Henry, claiming the farm violated a migrant worker protection law by replacing them and dozens of others with workers from Mexico.

The workers also accused the farm of using the hurricane as an excuse for letting them go, claiming it made them unreliable when in fact it was the farm's owners who encouraged them to return home early last year.

"They worked a season, they worked hard and they thought their employer was being considerate," said Marsella, a lawyer for the Worker Justice Center of New York.

The suit against W.D. Henry, a 130-year old family-owned operation, seeks to become a class action representing all of the farm's Puerto Rican workers. The workers are asking for an unspecified amount in damages and the opportunity to return to work at the farm.

Chaim J. Jaffe of Syracuse, a lawyer for the farm, declined to comment on the allegations.

Marsella said the farm's ties to Villalba date back more than two decades. He said more than half of the town's 20,000 people live in poverty and the jobs at W.D. Henry are an economic lifeline for the workers' families.

There are still about 16 workers from Puerto Rico at the farm, according to Marsella, and the rest are Mexican workers hired under the federal H-2a program, which allows foreign workers to be here temporarily.

He said the H-2a workers at W.D. Henry are earning more money than the former workers from Puerto Rico – $12.38 an hour compared with $9.70 an hour – and receive additional benefits, including travel reimbursement and temporary housing.

Despite those additional costs, the lawsuit suggests the change to H2a workers is a cost savings to the Henrys.

Marsella said the Mexican workers can't collect Social Security or unemployment, and their employment here is tied to their immigration status, giving the farm tremendous clout over their working conditions.

"When your immigration status is tied to a job and a single employer, it skews the balance of power between an employer and employee," he said.

The workers from Puerto Rico learned about the loss of their jobs in a variety of ways, he said, and the news could not have come at a worse time, in the months after Hurricane Maria.

Some learned about it when they were denied unemployment, Marsella said, and others heard it directly from supervisors at the farm.

Diaz Reyes, in court papers, said he was told on a Friday in late August of last year that he was no longer needed.

"Tuesday will be your last day," they told him, according to his account. "We don't have any more work for you. This will be your last season."

The farm workers who are suing W.D. Henry are back in Puerto Rico and did not want to comment at this time, Marsella said.

Their suit asks the court to certify the Puerto Rican workers, past and present, as a class and order W.D. Henry to offer jobs to all members of the class.

They also are seeking an unspecified amount in damages for each of the workers.

 

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