A group of migrant workers from Latin America is raising allegations of sexual harassment by a labor contractor for the Worcester Wreath Company, the company associated with the popular Wreaths Across America effort.
Eight workers — four women and four men — reported being fired after complaining about the harassment. A pair of investigations is now underway.
Between October and December, the peak of the season, as many as 800 workers, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, are hired by the company and its contractors. Many of the wreaths are made for the company's nonprofit affiliate, Wreaths Across America, and placed on veterans' graves before Christmas. Richard Rivera O'Neill of Puerto Rico said that he witnessed sexual harassment the first week the women arrived in Harrington, Maine to work for the Worcester Wreath Company.
O'Neill said the problems started after the women wound up being housed in a room with men. Speaking through an interpreter, he said a contractor began stopping by and repeatedly asking them to have sex with him.
"When the women told him that they weren't that kind of women, he still insinuated and asked them to have sex with him....A lot of them wouldn't speak up because of fear of losing their job," O’Neill said.
Neither O'Neill, nor Mano en Mano, an advocacy group that helps migrant and farm workers in Washington County, is naming the contractor. An attorney for the workers also declined to provide his name.
O'Neill said that after he and several men joined the women in protesting their treatment, they were fired and kicked out of their housing. But Tim Woodcock, an attorney for the Worcester Wreath Company, said the workers were terminated by the labor contractor for what he calls "serious misconduct" and he said they were offered an alternative.
"The workers came to Worcester and said that they thought they hadn't been treated fairly, so Worcester did offer them direct employment and offered them relocation to housing elsewhere so that they would be nowhere near the contractor in question, but they declined both offers," said Woodcock.
Woodcock said the company takes the allegations seriously and will put together a team to investigate their validity.
In a written statement, the company said it is not currently working with the contractor who is the subject of the allegations. If the allegations are verified, Worcester said it will take swift action to address misconduct.
Andrew Schmidt, a Portland attorney who is representing the workers, said that he is also conducting an investigation on their behalf. One of the women, Walesca Alicea Rodriguez, said in a written statement that the abuse against women must stop. "They think immigrant workers won't do anything or speak up," she said. "I am not afraid. I am raising my voice so that other women don't have to go through this."
"This is not the first time we've seen this. I think it's the first time a group of workers is collectively taking action," said Christina Ocampo of Mano en Mano.
Ocampo said her group has previously supported individual workers who've complained of wage theft, sexual harassment and other exploitation. She also said the workers' goal is to hold their labor contractors accountable for the injustices taking place under their roof.
A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Labor said the workers made a complaint to her agency, but she said the allegations are not within Department’s jurisdiction and should be raised with the Maine Human Rights Commission instead.
Originally published 5:49 p.m. Friday, Dec. 22, 2018