A group of truckers is taking a stand against a company’s alleged lie to the government that cost them their jobs.
Every year, American owner operators put in time, money, and effort to prepare their rigs for sugar harvesting season in Clewiston, South Florida, a lucrative gig that they know they can depend on every year. But for the 2019, 2020 harvesting season, these drivers say they were tricked and “used.”
According to reports by NBC 6 News, the group of truckers had signed a contract for the 2019, 2020 season with Caloosa Transport LLP, a company half owned by U.S. Sugar, promising them $30 an hour up to seven days a week for up to eight months. However, after just two weeks, the drivers say that they were fired from their positions and replaced with foreign workers, all because of a lie the company told the government.
In a letter to the US Department of Labor in August 2019, a representative of U.S. Sugar told the USDOL that it was experiencing an “emergency situation” that would leave their harvested crops to “rot in the field” because they had no American workers available to do the job. The company then requested an H-2A application, which would allow them to hire foreign workers with appropriate visas to do the job.
In the application, US sugar certified that they had “been unsuccessful in locating sufficient numbers of qualified U.S. applicants for the job opportunity” and “there are insufficient U.S. workers available in the area(s) capable of performing the temporary services or labor in the job opportunity.” The government then accepted the application, allowing the company to source their employees from other countries, causing trucker Paula Torres Martinez, along with many others, to have their contracts terminated as they were replaced by cheaper labor.
“I felt like they betrayed us, they lied to us, they used us,” Torres Martinez said.
Other drivers also pointed out that, once their contracts were terminated, the drivers were essentially out of options, as US sugar has a stronghold on the industry in their region.
“There are not many options,” said one of the plaintiffs, Leonard Cabrera Barroso. “These corporations have all the work, practically… if you want to work, you must work with them.”
When the owner operators learned that they had been replaced by foreign workers making $11.24 an hour driving Caloosa’s trucks, they knew something had to be done.
“U.S. Sugar applied for these workers, then had them come down and lent them to Caloosa to do the same exact driving that my clients were under contract to perform,” said the drivers’ attorney, Javier Basnuevo. “The only reasons these contracts were canceled was that foreign H-2A workers came to take their jobs.”
“U.S. Sugar applied for foreign H-2A visa workers from the U.S. government by telling the U.S. government there were no American workers ready, willing and able to do that work,” Basnuevo continued. “That was, of course, untrue, because my clients were here, they were able to do the work and they had contracts to do so and they were doing it.”
Caloosa and US Sugar argue that what the lawsuit alleges is untrue, and even filed a motion to remove what they considered “scandalous, immaterial and impertinent” allegations in a lawsuit they argue is simply a “vehicle to create scandal and capitalize on mischaracterizations of the H-2A program.”
In a separate motion, the companies also argued that the lawsuit is actually about breach of contract, and should not involve fraud or conspiracy charges. When asked, the only statement the company would make on the record to investigators regarding the lawsuit was this: “This relates to a private commercial contract dispute between Caloosa and a handful of independent trucking companies (that) Caloosa is currently working to resolve.”