Lawsuit accuses Tennessee company of mistreating illegal immigrant workers
Posted: Monday, October 20, 2008 10:11 pm
By BILL POOVEY
Associated Press Writer
CHATTANOOGA (AP) — A federal lawsuit accuses a financially ailing Tennessee cheese company of mistreating 12 illegal immigrant employees and having them wrongly arrested at their jobs in Manchester when they demanded back pay.
The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center filed the damage suit Thursday against Durrett Cheese Sales Inc., contending the Latino employees were made victims of “wage theft, discrimination and retaliation” just after the company filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in August 2007.
A hearing on the suit has been set Nov. 3 at Winchester.
The law center’s Immigrant Justice Project director, Mary Bauer, said the suit seeks damages for nine women and three men who were in the United States illegally when they were arrested at the factory in October 2007.
“They were out of status at the time this happened but that doesn’t mean they should be arrested for asking to get paid,” Bauer said. “No matter what their status is, the employer hired them.”
The suit filed in Nashville says that after the company’s bankruptcy petition the 12 workers were subjected to an “offensive, hostile and intimidating environment” because of their national origin and race.
The suit says the workers were referred to as “stupid Indians” and “donkeys,” while non-Latino workers did not have pay delayed, or face threats or derogatory remarks.
The suit also names Coffee County Sheriff Steve Graves, who said Thursday the group was arrested for disorderly conduct and turned over to federal immigration agents. Graves said the arrested workers were treated “with the utmost respect.”
Graves said the workers were deported but Bauer disagreed, although she declined to provide their whereabouts.
“I think where they are and what their current status is is their private information,” she said.
Telephone messages left for executives of the company were not returned. A woman who answered the phone Thursday at the factory in Manchester said it has a different name. She declined further comment.
The suit contends the Mexican workers “peacefully assembled” during a morning break Oct. 22, 2007, to request overdue paychecks, after some of them had worked longer than a month without getting paid.
The suit says the employer retaliated “by threatening and firing” them, then arranging their arrest and detention on false trespassing charges and their subsequent arrest by federal agents.
Bauer said the “sheriff knew this was a pay dispute. Instead of listening to that he arrested them for trespassing,” even though the workers were in their uniforms and asking to be paid.
A statement from the law center said the trespassing charge was dropped the day after the arrests but the workers remained in the county jail until immigration agents took them to Nashville, “where they were interrogated.
There were mothers of young children, some of whom are disabled or very ill, among the workers and the women feared they would be deported without saying goodbye or arranging for their care, the statement said.
An attorney “eventually secured their release.”
Graves said Thursday that he was unaware of the suit. Coffee County Attorney Bob Huskey could not be reached for comment.
Published in The Messenger 10.20.08