Mexican workers sue seafood packer on Eastern Shore They say employer paid below minimum wage, charged excessive rent


Three Mexican crab-pickers have sued an Eastern Shore seafood packer for allegedly paying them below minimum wage, charging them excessive rent to live in cramped conditions and forbidding them to leave their house after dark.

The Mexican women were brought to the United States legally to work for Tony's Seafood, a small packer on Hoopers Island in Dorchester County, under a federal program for industries that cannot find enough American workers. About 130 Mexican women picked crabs this season for several packers on the island chain 25 miles south of Cambridge.

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, accuses Rebecca Rippon, the owner of Tony's Seafood, of failing to keep her promise to pay the workers at least $4.71 an hour for 40 hours of work a week.

Instead, the suit charges, Rippon deducted $25 a week from the workers' pay for groceries without providing receipts; charged them $25 a week each to live in a two-bedroom house crammed with 10 women; didn't obtain Social Security numbers for them, and paid them in cash, deducting taxes at the maximum rate.

"They were basically put in this house and treated like indentured servants," said Deborah M. Thompson, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, which represents the women, along with Jerome T. May of Annapolis. "They could not go out after dark. They were told not to talk to Americans on the island because Americans didn't like Mexicans."

The workers -- Graciela Palacios Guerrero, 21; Maria Eugenia Tellez Giron, 25, and Velia Rosalba Torres, 25 -- were fired without cause after three weeks, the suit alleges. They expected to work six months and borrowed money to come to Maryland, it adds. Two of them left children with relatives in Mexico.

The plaintiffs seek $50,000 each in damages, plus back wages, court costs and attorney's fees. The women, who are doing odd jobs on the Shore under new work permits that allow them to stay in the United States until June, could not be reached.

Rippon's lawyer, Stuart Snyder, said other Mexican workers would verify that the seafood packer complies with regulations and treats employees fairly.

"She is what you call a real down-home Eastern Shore woman. Whatever the rules call for, that's what she does," Snyder said. "She was very upset. She's never been sued in her life."

"If she tells them not to go out at night, it's because they don't speak the language and she doesn't want them to wander into any trouble. She feels kind of responsible for them," Snyder said.

Jay Newcomb, manager of A.E. Phillips & Son, who six years ago became the first Hoopers Island packer to import Mexican labor, said he hoped the suit wouldn't jeopardize the availability of Mexican workers. He said this was the first legal action taken against any Hoopers Island packing house in connection with the federal program.

"I don't know what we'd do without [the Mexican workers]. We'd be out of business," Newcomb said.

Thompson said the Public Justice Center was not trying to shut down the packing houses, but that "employers have an obligation to comply with the law and stop abuses."

The suit is the first by the nonprofit law firm's Latino Legal Assistance Project. Thompson said the center believes the case "represents a systemic problem" in Eastern Shore seafood companies' use of foreign labor.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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