October 17, 2013

Racial discrimination suit against Maine egg farms settled

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A longtime employee of Austin “Jack” DeCoster who alleged in a federal lawsuit that Mexican-American workers at DeCoster’s egg farms were treated as “virtual slaves” has reached a settlement with his former employer.

click image to enlarge

Gregory Rec / 2003 Staff File Photo In this file photo, hens feed inside one of the plants at the former Decoster Egg Farms in Turner, Maine. A longtime employee of Austin “Jack” DeCoster who alleged in a federal lawsuit that Mexican-American workers at DeCoster’s egg farms were treated as “virtual slaves” has reached a settlement with his former employer.

Homero Ramirez, a 58-year-old Lewiston resident who was born in Mexico, filed a lawsuit in 2011 against DeCoster and the businesses DeCoster once owned in Turner and Winthrop, claiming discrimination based on race, national origin and age, among other violations.

The two sides reached an undisclosed settlement, according to a notice filed by Ramirez’s attorney, Benjamin Gideon, on Monday in U.S. District Court in Portland. The court ordered the two sides to complete the terms of the settlement within 30 days and file another notice to the court so the case can be dismissed.

DeCoster, an egg magnate with a long history of food safety, labor and environmental violations, gave up control of his egg operations in Iowa after they were linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak. He and his son, Peter, gave up control of their operations in Maine at the same time.

A division of Minnesota-based Land O’Lakes Inc. took over three egg farms, in Leeds, Turner and Winthrop.

According to Ramirez’s complaint, DeCoster frequently said he didn’t want non-Mexican workers because they didn’t accept his authority and didn’t do whatever was asked as willingly as Mexican workers did.

Ramirez, a plant manager, was told not to hire non-Mexican workers and to “get rid of the gringos,” according to the complaint.

To show DeCoster’s authority, Ramirez was required to do humiliating, demeaning and dangerous tasks without safety precautions as other employees watched, according to the complaint. One example in the complaint describes a hazing incident in which Ramirez cleaned and oiled large machinery without shutting it down.

Ramirez also accused DeCoster of making him the brunt of ethnic slurs and jokes about his inability to read and write English, and making threatening statements such as “I’m going to take a two-by-four and hit you in the head.”

DeCoster also allegedly told Ramirez that he could not get medical attention for work-related injuries.

Gideon said the terms of the settlement agreement are “confidential” and he could not comment.

An attorney for DeCoster did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan

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