Eagan’s Best Brands uses immigration status to replace full-time workers with temps

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On September 10, managers at Eagan’s Best Brands factory began summoning workers into their office one by one. By the same time the following week, the baked goods company had fired somewhere between 60 and 100 workers, almost a third of the factory’s staff by workers’ estimates.

Behind the closed doors, human resources staff told each worker that there was a problem. They said the company had been notified that Social Security numbers on file didn’t match up with employee names. These notices come from the Social Security administration and are generally known as “no-match letters.” Staff told employees they would be given until the end of the week to bring in the correct documents and resolve the issue or have their jobs terminated. Ulises Duay, one of the fired employees, had worked in the factory since 2001. He says at least one worker returned to present valid documentation to company managers, but had it dismissed as fraudulent.

“Normally you’re not allowed to reject a document outright like that,” says Minneapolis immigration lawyer Bruce Nestor. “If it appears valid on its face, unless it’s written in crayon or something obvious, you have to accept it.”

The worker, however, was fired, along with Duay, his mother, and many others. Duay says the company had been aware for years that many of the workers were not U.S. citizens, but ignored the fact until this fall. He feels the change in company policy was a cost-cutting measure timed to coincide with a proposed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) letter.

The DHS letters, originally scheduled for delivery on September 14, were never mailed, due to a federal restraining order. The letters would have threatened employers with fines for knowingly employing undocumented immigrants, based on Social Security no-match notices.

The DHS letters would have reversed a long-standing Social Security Administration policy on no-match letters. According to the National Immigration Law Center, in the past, the no-match letter itself stated that it does not “make any statement about an employee’s immigration status,” and that that employers should not “take any adverse action against an employee, such as laying off, suspending, firing, or discriminating against that individual, just because his or her Social Security number appears on the list” and that “[d]oing so could, in fact, violate State or Federal law and subject you to legal consequences.”

On Friday, the Bush administration abandoned its defense of the letters, according to the New York Times. In papers filed with the federal court that stopped the DHS letters, the Bush administration said it would rewrite the rule to meet the court’s concerns.

Duay says the company exploited the fear that publicity around the issue generated among immigrant workers, figuring they could use the opportunity to fire a large number of immigrant workers without much resistance. “They know we watched what was happening on TV…they thought that we would be too scared to do anything about it,” he says.

Many of the fired workers have since begun organizing with the help of the Worker’s Interfaith Network (WIN), a local non-profit dedicated to promoting worker’s rights, especially among immigrant communities. On November 5, WIN and former Best Brands workers held a press conference to demand compensation for what they feel was an unfair firing. Brian Payne, an organizer for WIN, says most workers who are fired as a result of a Social Security no-match letters are given 60 to 90 days notice, while Best Brands workers were only given a week.

Over the past month WIN contacted Best Brands CEO Scott Humphrey to negotiate a settlement, but Payne says Humphrey was unwilling to meet with workers unless WIN publicly retracted all the statements it had made about the company. WIN had previously claimed, like Duay, that the firings were part of a cost-cutting measure. It cited a summer 2007 company newsletter in which Best Brands announced its upcoming plan to reduce spending on employees from 17 cents out of every dollar to 16 cents for the upcoming year.

“They figured firing a bunch of workers would be the best way to cut costs,” say Payne.

Duay has confirmed the claims made by WIN, saying that many of the workers were told by managers escorting them from the factory that they could simply re-apply for their former job through a temp agency. The responsibility of proving a worker’s immigration status, as well as paying for his or her workmen’s compensation and benefits, would then be transferred to the employment agency, rather than Best Brands. Duay adds that some of the former workers have accepted the offer and returned to the company, while the rest of the vacant positions are being filled by new hires at lower wages.

Payne says the real issue—the firing of full-time workers and their replacement with temporary ones—isn’t just about immigration. He sees it as a symptom of a region-wide trend affecting workers of all ethnicities.

“Right around the same time, the Pillsbury factory did the same thing. They laid off about half their staff, and that was a lot of Anglo workers; it wasn’t Latinos like at Best Brands. They replaced workers that were making $12-18 an hour plus benefits with temp workers. This is an industry-wide trend [in the baking goods industry].”

WIN organizers are now looking at setting up meetings with clients of Best Brands to explain the situation to them. The former workers also say they also intend to publicize information about possible health violations in the factory should the company continue in its refusal to negotiate.

“We want to be nice for now, because we’re still hoping for a settlement,” says Duay. “But we could tell you about things going on in the factory that will make you never want to eat their products.”

Best Brands officials refused to comment for this article.

Dan Gordon is a free-lance writer in the Twin Cities. He can be reached at upagainstthewalrus@riseup.net

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