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Attorney General Ellison wins protections for dairy-farm workers while wage theft lawsuit continues

March 25, 2024 (SAINT PAUL) – Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced today that he has obtained protections for dairy-farm workers for the duration of his lawsuit against Evergreen Acres Dairy, Evergreen Estates, Morgan Feedlots, and the dairy operations’ owners Keith Schaefer and Megan Hill (collectively “Evergreen”). In a stipulated temporary injunction, Evergreen has agreed to take specific steps to ensure it pays workers correctly and improves housing conditions while the lawsuit continues. The agreement is the latest development in Attorney General Ellison’s lawsuit against Evergreen, which alleges the dairy farm and its owners withheld millions of dollars of workers’ wages, illegally deducted rent for substandard housing, and threatened workers to discourage reporting.

“I am fighting to stop Evergreen from illegally profiting off the backs of vulnerable workers and to protect honest dairy farms from being undercut by a business that we allege is breaking the law. As we prosecute this lawsuit against Evergreen, I will continue to use the powers of my office to help employees keep their hard-earned wages and ensure that tenants have safe homes,” Attorney General Ellison said.

“As part of this temporary injunction, Evergreen has promised to pay workers correctly and fix substandard housing while this lawsuit continues. This is an important step forward in my fight to ensure Evergreen workers get the money they are owed, that their rights as tenants are respected, and that honest businesses can compete on a level playing field,” Ellison concluded.

Under the stipulated temporary injunction, for the duration of the Attorney General’s lawsuit, Evergreen is agreeing to:

• Make and keep proper records to show the hours Evergreen employees actually worked;

• Give employees clear written notice, in Spanish and English, of what their wages will be;

• Ensure workers are paid for every dollar they earn;

• Stop making deductions from workers’ pay without written permission;

• Stop charging rent for substandard housing;

• Pay for a housing inspector who will inspect worker housing and issue a report documenting housing code violations;

• Report back to the Attorney General’s Office on Evergreen’s progress in fixing housing safety issues;

• Allow re-inspections to confirm workers are no longer living in any unsafe conditions; and

• Work with the Attorney General’s Office to ensure workers are not suddenly displaced when repairs occur.

Background of the Case

In January 2024, Attorney General Ellison filed a lawsuit in Stearns County District Court against Evergreen. Evergreen has employed hundreds of people over the last 3 years — who work long and demanding hours under dangerous conditions — at its facilities in Stearns and Redwood counties. Many of them are unauthorized workers from Mexico who speak limited or no English. Attorney General Ellison alleges Evergreen has systematically deprived these low-wage dairy employees of millions of dollars in wages they earned by shaving both regular and overtime hours from workers’ paychecks, by failing to pay wages owed at the beginning and end of workers’ employment, and by unlawfully deducting rent for substandard onsite housing that fails to meet standards of habitability under Minnesota law. In the lawsuit, Attorney General Ellison estimates that Evergreen owes its employees at least $3 million in earned but unpaid wages.

Evergreen also acts as a landlord, making unauthorized deductions from its employees’ paychecks for the substandard housing it leases to them. The suit alleges that Evergreen’s employee housing violates Minnesota’s most basic health and safety standards. For example, some workers live in windowless “bedrooms” with plywood walls and unfinished electrical. Some employees live in housing with no onsite toilet. Other workers have lived in garages, haphazardly converted barns, and other buildings not fit for human habitation. Click here to view photos of the substandard housing Evergreen provides to employees.

Evergreen reportedly cultivated a workplace culture of fear, violence, and intimidation, and discouraged workers from complaining about their pay and housing through threats of violence and threats to call the police. Despite these brazen attempts by Evergreen to silence their employees, numerous workers have come forward to speak out against these employment and housing violations.

Attorney General Ellison is seeking to stop Evergreen’s unlawful failure to pay its employees all the wages they have earned, stop its violations of Minnesota’s housing habitability standards and tenant protections, and fully remediate the harm its unlawful practices have caused to its employees, including by restituting employees’ earned and unpaid wages. The lawsuit also asks for liquidated damages, civil penalties, costs, and attorney’s fees.

Filing a Complaint as a Worker

Workers with concerns or complaints about systematic violations of state and federal wage laws can contact the Attorney General’s Office through its online complaint form (available in Spanish or English). The Attorney General’s Office can also be contacted by calling (651) 296-3353 (Metro area) or (800) 657-3787 (Greater Minnesota). Spanish-speaking agents of the Attorney General’s Office are available.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action Policy

When a government agency enforces labor laws against an employer who employs undocumented workers, the government agency can request that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant deferred action to affected workers so that the workers can participate in the investigation and lawsuit without fear of retaliation related to immigration status. As DHS says, doing so “directly increases the ability of labor and employment agencies to more fully investigate worksite violations and support them in fulfilling their mission and holding abusive employers accountable, which protects all U.S. workers.”

The AGO has made that request in this case, and workers who are interested in seeking deferred action can review the AGO's publication on the DHS policy (available in English and Spanish). Workers with questions on this policy should contact the AGO and a qualified immigration attorney.

Evergreen workers can find more information about the Attorney General’s enforcement action, housing resources, and deferred action here (available in English and Spanish) and are encouraged to contact investigators David Pegg (651-278-2276; David.pegg@ag.state.mn.us) and Maria Minvielle (651-300-7524; maria.minviellemontes@ag.state.mn.us).

 

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