By Jeanne Sager
JEFFERSONVILLE January 27, 2004 A local business owner is facing allegations that she abused her immigrant employees.
A civil suit was filed two weeks ago in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York alleging that Maria Herlinda Bravo, owner of Quintessence Alpacas International, has failed to pay four of her employees the federal minimum wage or overtime.
According to Daniel Werner, a lawyer with Farmworker Legal Services of New York, some residents who live near the Jeffersonville farm befriended plaintiffs Luis Angelo Osorio-Silva, Marcos Lopez-Cerrata, William Aguilar and Santos Victor Lopez-Cerrata.
When they spoke with the four Spanish-speaking men, Werner said the neighbors became concerned for their welfare.
They placed a call to the Rural and Migrant Ministry, Werner explained, who brought in Farmworker Legal Services.
According to the civil suit, the men were working as much as 20 hours a day and not seeing a paycheck for weeks at a time.
Two of the workers are owed many weeks of wages for which they were simply not paid, Werner noted. And all workers were not paid the minimum wage.
All the workers worked 20-hour days, and they werent paid overtime, he continued, noting that one of the employees said he worked as many as 23 hours in one day.
Bravo, who was reached in Chile last week, said she feels as though shes been stabbed in the back.
Through tears, the farm owner said she doesnt owe any of the four men a cent and that they were treated fairly.
Some were paid $8 an hour, Bravo said. Its not true that we never paid them thats a lie.
She said she paid for Osorio-Silva to come to America from her home in Chile, and he was paid less than the other workers because he was a trainee.
But, Bravo continued, he was still paid a fair wage, and her farm in Chile continued to pay him his social security and things like that for that country.
The men also received room and board in exchange for their work, Bravo said.
They had a brand new building that I built, she said. They had rooms, they had a kitchen, a full bathroom and another bathroom.
She paid for their utilities, she added, including television.
Bravo said those privileges were abused numerous times.
One worker (whose name she did not specify) left $500 worth of charges for pornographic movies and boxing events on her television bills, and the others racked up $2,000 bills on the barns phone.
Bravo admitted there was a time when the workers had to wait for their money.
When we came to New York, we went through a very difficult time, she explained. They agreed to work and wait for their wages, but they were paid in full.
We dont owe them a penny, she continued. We have the proof.
We paid them so much money, even when we were going through hell.
The suit also alleges that Quintessence Alpacas failed to post federally-mandated notices explaining employees rights to overtime and the minimum wage (currently $5.15 an hour).
The only thing I agree with is that we didnt have the paper that said their rights, Bravo said.
But the suit also alleges that Bravo failed to provide her employees with a written disclosure of terms and conditions of their employment in their native language.
According to Werner, all four men are legal residents of Sullivan County. Marcos Lopez-Cerrata, Santos Victor Lopez-Cerrata and Aguilar originate from Guatemala and the fourth, Osorio-Silva, is a native of Chile.
Werner said this suit brings with it a question about the New York State Empire Zone, a program set up by the state to promote economic development, specifically aimed at providing jobs to residents.
Quintessence Alpacas is part of the Empire Zone, Werner said, and yet it isnt providing its employees with the rights protected by federal law.
If one of the purposes of the Empire Zone is to increase employment, how does that jive? Werner asked.
Werner said the focus of the suit will be on what exactly Bravo owes the workers in question.
We are looking for back wages and other penalties allowed under the law, he said.
Bravo has vowed to get a lawyer and fight the charges.
Shes countered that the men were in charge when a number of babies in the alpaca herds died, although she did not say how the men could be held responsible.
We have proof that we dont owe them, and we did pay them late, but they knew about it and they agreed, she said. We can prove that the months when they werent paid there was no money.
One thing is for sure, Bravo said Monday, we are immigrants ourselves, and one fact is that I taught both of my children to treat all our workers with respect.