HARRINGTON — A group of migrant workers is alleging instances of sexual harassment by a labor contractor for the Worcester Wreath Co.
Members of the group, comprised of four women and four men, say that they were subsequently fired after confronting the contractor in question and raising complaints about their treatment.
Working with Mano en Mano, a Washington County-based advocacy organization that provides services to migrant workers, the group has reported the incident to the Maine Department of Labor and is exploring further legal options.
“We were first contacted about this in early November, right after the incident,” said Christina Ocampo, advocacy and client services director for Mano en Mano. “They told us initially, and continue to say, that the labor contractor kept insisting or insinuating to have sex with the women, offer them alcohol and showing up unannounced at their dormitories.”
Tim Woodcock, a Bangor attorney with the law offices of Eaton Peabody representing Worcester Wreath Co., emphasized that the workers had been fired by a contractor and not Worcester Wreath Co.
“Worcester takes this seriously and is investigating the incident,” Woodcock said. “A group from this firm as well as Worcester’s compliance officer will begin investigating the matter next week.”
According to Richard Rivera O’Neill, from Puerto Rico, he was one of the eight employees who were fired. He said that incidents began shortly after he arrived at a wreath manufacturing site in Columbia.
“It started with sexual harassment by the crew leader. He would insinuate things almost every day until it got to the point where it was out of control,” said Rivera O’Neill through a translator. “When we wanted to talk about what was happening, when we raised our voice, they didn’t want to hear it.”
Rivera O’Neill said the harassment came from one contractor and would occur both at work and at the employee dormitories. In early November, the eight workers confronted that contractor. The next day, Rivera said that “we were told we were fired and had to leave immediately, and there was a security guard there.”
Woodcock stated that the workers had been fired by their contractor and not by Worcester Wreath Co.
“What we understand is that the contractors found there were serious misconduct violations,” Woodcock said. “Worcester did offer to relocate those workers and provide them direct employment, but they declined.”
An official statement from Worcester Wreath Co. stated that, “At this time, Worcester is not working with the contractor who is the subject of the allegations. Worcester Wreath takes the allegations of misconduct very seriously. If the allegations are verified, Worcester will take swift action to address any misconduct and prevent it from reoccurring.”
Andy Schmidt, a Portland attorney who is representing the eight workers, said he is conducting an investigation on their behalf.
The Maine Department of Labor confirmed that it had received a complaint from the workers, but that further allegations and investigations should be handled by the Maine Human Rights Commission.
Rivera O’Neill and the other workers involved are among the more than 700 seasonal workers, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, who work as long as 15 hours a day making wreaths. Many of those wreaths are purchased by the nonprofit Wreaths Across America, which is run by the wife of Worcester Wreath Co.’s owner.
When not at the wreath factories, the contract workers stay in dormitory-style housing with shared sleeping, kitchen, and bathroom spaces. Very few are within walking distance to a town.
“There’s not a lot of privacy for them, and it can be pretty remote because they don’t really have a way other than the crew leader,” Ocampo said. “The workers are paid through their crew boss, not the company.”
Rivera O’Neill, who has worked in Maine since 2009 in the blueberry, potato and lobster industries, said one issue that immediately drew concern from the workers was that men and women were being placed in rooms together. He also said this alleged harassment was the first time he had experienced the issue firsthand.
“You do hear about things like this from other people, but it was really horrible to go through it,” Rivera O’Neill said.
Walesca Alicea Rodriguez, one of the women who says she experienced sexual harassment and was fired, said in a statement from Mano en Mano, “The abuse against women must stop. They think immigrant workers won’t do anything or speak up. I am not afraid. I am raising my voice so that other women don’t have to go through this.”