Eight migrant workers who had been hired to harvest balsam and make wreaths at Worcester Wreath Co. say they were fired after raising concerns about a labor contractor who sexually harassed them.

According to Mano en Mano, a Washington County-based organization that provides services to migrant workers, the group included women who say they were harassed and men who stood in solidarity with them. The employees have reported the incident to the Maine Department of Labor and are currently considering other legal options.

“Workers at Worcester Wreath Company have reported sexual harassment, wage theft, fear of retaliation for speaking up and unfair treatment based on their race, country of origin, immigration status and gender. There is an overall lack of respect for these workers’ humanity,” said Christina Ocampo of Mano en Mano. “They are asking for and have the right to fair and dignified work free from sexual violence.”

Tim Woodcock, a Bangor attorney representing Worcester Wreath, said in a statement Thursday that the company takes the allegations seriously, but he also said the workers were not fired by anyone from Worcester Wreath and, in fact, the company didn’t know about the allegations until recently.

“Upon learning of these allegations, Worcester Wreath immediately retained the law offices of Eaton Peabody to conduct an investigation,” Woodcock said. “At this time, Worcester is not working with the contractor who is the subject of the allegations. If the allegations are verified, Worcester will take swift action to address any misconduct and prevent it from reoccurring.”

Woodcock further said that the eight workers who were terminated by the contractor and evicted were offered work and housing in other facilities, which they declined.

It’s not clear who the contractor is. Woodcock said he didn’t know and Mano en Mano did not provide the name.

Worcester Wreath Co., located in Harrington, has gained prominence largely because of its connection to the annual Wreaths Across America event, in which the nonprofit places wreaths on each grave at Arlington National Cemetery. This month, the Press Herald reported how that connection has meant a huge increase in payments from the nonprofit to the private company, which are run by the same family.

In 2011, Wreaths Across America took in $227,000 in donations. By last year, that figure had jumped to $14.6 million, 70 percent of which – $10.3 million – went directly to Worcester Wreath. National charity watchdogs have criticized Wreaths Across America for its practices.

The company, like many others in Washington County, employs hundreds of temporary workers each season, many of them from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. At peak, the workers often clock 15-hour days to meet demand.

Walesca Alicea Rodriguez of Puerto Rico was one of the women who experienced sexual harassment beginning in October. She said the labor contractor, whom she did not name, would often offer women alcohol and try to get them to have sex with him.

“The abuse against women must stop,” she said in a statement. “They think immigrant workers won’t do anything or speak up. I am not afraid. I am raising my voice so that other women don’t have to go through this.”

Richard Rivera Oneill, also of Puerto Rico, said he was fired as well for standing with Rodriguez and others. In an interview through a Spanish translator, Oneill said he’s been coming to Maine since 2009 to pick blueberries. This was the first year he returned to make wreaths.

Oneill said he personally witnessed the harassment. He said rather than take action against the contractor, Worcester Wreath let the workers go and kicked them out of employer-owned housing.

“It’s one thing for Worcester Wreath Company to say they do not condone sexual harassment, but it’s another to stand by their words,” Oneill said in a statement.

Woodcock, the attorney for Worcester Wreath, disputes this.

Laura Hudson, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, confirmed the complaint but said it was outside the scope of her department and was referred to the Maine Human Rights Commission.

A Portland attorney, Andrew Schmidt, is representing the group of fired workers, but his office would only say that it’s still investigating the claims.

Woodcock said Worcester Wreath long has worked with licensed labor contractors to provide workers to harvest balsam and make wreaths. But he said the workers are not employees of Worcester Wreath.

Ian Yaffe of Mano en Mano said that arrangement is not standard in Washington County and seems designed to insulate the company from any responsibility.

“I think that’s one of the hardest things for workers is that they don’t know where to go,” he said.

Migrant workers, particularly those who are either undocumented or who are on temporary visas, are at high risk for abuse and exploitation.

Oneill said he’s fortunate to be from Puerto Rico, which is part of the U.S. He can come and go as he pleases. He said workers from other countries are scared about what could happen to them, and they also fear they have no recourse when speaking up about mistreatment.

Yaffe said another thing Mano en Mano is bothered by is that the entire Wreaths Across America event takes place without any acknowledgment of the hands who made the wreaths.

“It is because of the deep honor we hold for our veterans that we must recognize the disrespect that comes with placing wreaths that are built on the backs of exploited and harassed migrant and immigrant workers,” he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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