Attorney General Ellison sues large dairy farm for millions in wage theft

Attorney General Ellison sues large dairy farm for millions in wage theft

Photo: Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison holding a press conference on January 8 about a wage theft case against Evergreen Acres, who is accused of stealing more than $3 million from workers at its facilities.
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Civil lawsuit alleges Evergreen Acres has failed to pay at least $3M of vulnerable workers’ earned wages, illegally charged rent for substandard housing, and maintained a culture of fear and violence to discourage reporting

Seeks restitution for workers, civil penalties, and an end to abusive practices

conditions at Evergreen Acres worker dwellings in MN

The image above shows documented living conditions at Evergreen Acres workers' living quarters. 

Evergreen Acres

Press Release:

January 8, 2024 (SAINT PAUL) – Today, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit in Stearns County District Court against Evergreen Acres Dairy, Evergreen Estates, Morgan Feedlots, and the dairy operations’ owners Keith Schaefer and Megan Hill (collectively “Evergreen”). Attorney General Ellison alleges Evergreen has systematically deprived its vulnerable, low-wage dairy employees of millions of dollars in wages they earned by shaving both regular and overtime hours from workers’ paychecks, not paying wages owed at the beginning and end of workers’ employment, and by unlawfully deducting rent for substandard onsite housing that fails to meet standards of habitability under Minnesota law. In the lawsuit, Attorney General Ellison estimates that Evergreen owes its employees at least $3 million in earned but unpaid wages.

In the lawsuit, Attorney General Ellison is seeking to stop Evergreen’s unlawful failure to pay its employees all the wages they have earned, stop its violations of Minnesota’s housing habitability standards and tenant protections, and fully remediate the harm its unlawful practices have caused to its employees, including by restituting employees’ earned and unpaid wages. The lawsuit also asks for liquidated damages, civil penalties, costs, and attorney’s fees.

“Every worker deserves to take home every dollar they earn and live with dignity, safety, and respect. That Evergreen systemically and deliberately deprived its employees’ of all the wages they have earned is a shock to the conscience, and the conditions under which its employees live are abhorrent and illegal,” said Attorney General Ellison. “My office will fight to make sure the hardworking people who put food on our tables can afford to feed their own families and live in safe housing. We will also fight to make sure that businesses who play by the rules are not unfairly undercut by those who unlawfully exploit vulnerable workers and tenants.”

Evergreen has employed hundreds of people over the last 3 years — who work long and demanding hours under dangerous conditions — at its facilities in Stearns and Redwood counties. Many of them are unauthorized workers from Mexico who speak limited or no English. Attorney General Ellison alleges that Evergreen has exploited the vulnerabilities of its workforce to withhold earned wages from its employees, who work demanding 12-hour shifts at least six days per week. The lawsuit alleges that Evergreen has done so by systematically underreporting the number of hours that employees work on their paystubs, often shaving off 12 to 32 hours from each two-week pay period and depriving employees of both regular wages and overtime premiums owed. Evergreen has also allegedly failed to pay workers’ wages by refusing to pay employees for time worked at the beginning and end of their employment. Attorney General Ellison further alleges Evergreen attempted to cover up its illegal practices by refusing to document most of its employment practices in writing, which is against the law; failing to provide employees with written information about how they are paid, which is also required by law; falsifying paystubs; and even destroying the timecards that they are required to keep by law that would show how many hours its employees actually worked. 

Evergreen also acts as a landlord, making unauthorized deductions from its employees’ paychecks for the substandard housing it leases to them. The suit alleges that Evergreen’s employee housing violates Minnesota’s most basic health and safety standards. For example, some workers live in windowless “bedrooms” with plywood walls, unfinished electrical sockets, and only space heaters for warmth. Some employees live in housing with no onsite toilet.  Other workers have lived in garages, haphazardly converted barns, and other buildings not fit for human habitation. Most of this rental housing appears to have severe insect infestations, pervasive microbial growth, and other health and safety issues. Click here to view photos of the substandard housing Evergreen provides to employees.

Evergreen also allegedly violates Minnesota law by subjecting its employee-tenants to frequent violations of their privacy rights by conducting unannounced inspections of employee housing, including bedrooms. As alleged in the lawsuit, Evergreen’s employee-tenants did not even have the choice of which housing they lived in, often being moved to different properties arbitrarily at Evergreen’s whims. When Evergreen fires employees or employees quit, Evergreen frequently forces employee-tenants from their homes without notice and withholds their final paychecks. 

Evergreen reportedly cultivated a workplace culture of fear, violence, and intimidation, and discouraged workers from complaining about their pay and housing through threats of violence and threats to call the police. For example, when one employee was injured on the job and unable to work, Evergreen owner Keith Schaefer allegedly grabbed that employee by the neck, pushed them into a wall, and told them that they would be evicted from Evergreen housing in 10 minutes if they did not return to work immediately. Despite these brazen attempts by Evergreen to silence their employees, dozens of workers have come forward to speak out against these employment and housing violations.

“I want to thank the courageous workers who came forward, despite Evergreen’s threats, to help our Office hold Evergreen accountable for its numerous violations of the law. Without them, this action would not have been possible,” Attorney General Ellison added.

Filing a complaint as a worker

Workers with concerns or complaints about systematic violations of state and federal wage laws can contact the Attorney General’s Office through its online complaint form (available in Spanish or English) or by calling (651) 296-3353 (Metro area) or (800) 657-3787 (Greater Minnesota). Spanish-speaking agents of the Attorney General’s Office are available.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action Policy

When a government agency enforces labor laws against an employer who employs undocumented workers, the government agency can request that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant deferred action to affected workers so that the workers can participate in the investigation and lawsuit without fear of retaliation related to immigration status. As DHS says, doing so “directly increases the ability of labor and employment agencies to more fully investigate worksite violations and support them in fulfilling their mission and holding abusive employers accountable, which protects all U.S. workers.”

The AGO has made that request in this case, and workers who are interested in seeking deferred action can review the AGO's publication on the DHS policy (available in English and Spanish). Workers with questions on this policy should contact the AGO and a qualified immigration attorney. 

Evergreen workers can find more information about the Attorney General’s enforcement action, housing resources, and deferred action here (available in English and Spanish) and are encouraged to contact investigators David Pegg (651-278-2276; David.pegg@ag.state.mn.us) and Maria Minvielle (651-300-7524; maria.minviellemontes@ag.state.mn.us).

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