MN Dairy Farm Denies Wage Theft Allegations

MN Dairy Farm Denies Wage Theft Allegations

ImageAt one farm, workers lived in a converted barn that was infested with cockroaches. The “kitchen sink” was a utility sink next to a water heater. Photos from civil complaint.

Minnesota dairy farm denies stealing more than $3 million in wages from hundreds of workers

by Max Nesterak, Minnesota Reformer
March 7, 2024

A Minnesota dairy farm being sued by Attorney General Keith Ellison for allegedly stealing more than $3 million in wages from hundreds of workers — while charging them for squalid living quarters in barns and garages — denied the allegations in a court filing, asking a judge to dismiss the complaint.

Ellison filed suit in January against Evergreen Acres owners Keith Schaefer and his daughter Megan Hill, whose sprawling dairy operation includes 18 facilities across central Minnesota, in one of the largest wage theft cases in his office’s history. Schaefer and Hill’s other business entities — Evergreen Estates and Morgan Feedlots — are also named in the complaint.

Ellison compared the conditions at Evergreen Acres to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” alleging workers put in 12-hour days, six or seven days a week, while some workers were charged rent to sleep in the same bed as others working opposite 12-hour shifts.

Schaefer and Hill, in their response filed in district court on Feb. 29, deny virtually everything in the complaint, including that many of their workers are unauthorized immigrants largely from Mexico. (Although they admit they have employed hundreds of workers over the past three years, and many were recruited from Mexico by current employees.)

Shaefer and Hill, who are represented by attorneys at the law firm Nilan Johnson Lewis, deny they regularly underpaid workers for upwards of 32 hours every two weeks or that they failed to pay overtime premiums.

Ellison’s office alleges the housing workers were charged $70-$150 every two weeks was not fit for human habitation. The attorney general’s filing included photos of rooms covered with black mold and a cockroach-infested fridge.

Schaefer and Hill admitted they deducted workers’ paychecks for housing, and that some living quarters are “connected to farm-related storage space” and that employees in one home need to walk “a short distance” to use a toilet in a nearby building. But they denied the conditions were squalid. They also deny that Evergreen supervisors made unannounced inspections and deducted money from workers’ wages for dirty rooms.

Ellison’s office alleges Schaefer was physically and verbally abusive to employees. According to the civil complaint, one employee accuses Shaefer of grabbing him by the neck and pushing him against the wall because he did not report to work because of an injury. Another time, Schaefer allegedly threatened to kill one employee and reminded the workers of a dog he recently killed while he threatened other employees with deportation.

Schaefer denied those allegations in the court filing.

Dairy farms are among the most dangerous workplaces in the country, relying on immigrant labor and facing little oversight from regulators, as ProPublica has detailed in a series of investigations.

Ellison accused Evergreen Acres of exploiting workers’ vulnerabilities, saying many are from the Oaxaca region and speak Zapotec as their first language and Spanish as their second. Many have limited or no English nor understanding of their rights as workers, regardless of immigration status.

Ellison’s office noted the various tasks workers have to do — corralling cows, breeding cows, cleaning manure — are “physically demanding and run the risk of death and serious injury.” Schaefer and Hill agreed with the list of job duties but denied the description of it being dangerous.

The first hearing in the case is scheduled for April 19.

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Minnesota Reformer is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor J. Patrick Coolican for questions: info@minnesotareformer.com. Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.

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