MADISON, WI – Five years after leaving their Guatemalan and Mexican homes for jobs promised by owners of two Wisconsin forestry companies and discovering they would not receive the wages, benefits and types of jobs described in their contracts, 263 workers will finally receive $1.1 million in unpaid wages after extensive federal investigations.
The lengthy resolution began with a U.S. Department of Labor review of H-2B Visa program certification contracts from 2016 to 2018 held by Northwoods Forestry Inc. and A&C Forestry Services LLC, both located in Eleva. The department’s Wage and Hour Division identified several violations of H-2B Visa program requirements, including improper job classification and employment outside the area of intended employment.
While the employers sought and contracted the H-2B forestry workers for jobs in Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, investigators learned they illegally placed the workers in non-forestry occupations in the Eau Claire and Abbotsford areas. The occupations included meat processing, concrete finishing, painting, roofing and landscaping. Northwoods and A&C also failed to pay the prevailing wage rates and overtime disclosed on the job order and made illegal deductions for transportation and safety expenses.
The employers paid most workers straight time for all hours worked at rates between $12 and $14 per hour, well below the required prevailing wage rate, in violation of their H-2B agreement.
Following its investigation, the department determined Northwoods and its married owners – Alfredo and Patricia Aguilar – owed the affected workers $1,144,693 in back wages and assessed $210,696 in civil money penalties. They must also provide the division with contact information for the workers to help workers recover their back wages.
The findings led the division to make a criminal referral to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin in Madison. On Jan. 13, 2023, a plea agreement was entered in the U.S. District Court in Madison in which Aguilar pleaded guilty to one count of fraud and agreed to make restitution for the back wages owed. Chief U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson scheduled sentencing for April 19, 2023.
In addition, the couple have signed an enhanced compliance agreement which forbids Northwoods Forestry and A&C Forestry from participation in H-2B for five years. If they, as individuals, participate in any activities related to the H-2B worker program, they must submit to monitoring by a neutral third party.
“This case’s resolution shows the U.S. Department of Labor will pursue those who commit fraud involving foreign labor certification programs vigorously, and work hard to make sure the rights of those promised work in the U.S. to receive the wages and benefits are legally protected,” explained Wage and Hour Regional Administrator Michael Lazzeri in Chicago. “The H-2B labor certification program exists to help employers fill positions to operate their businesses, and requires them to abide by very detailed terms. Those who wrongly believe they can ignore the law are deeply mistaken and will be held accountable.”
The division found Northwoods Forestry previously violated provisions of the H-2B visa program for four contracts in 2009, 2011 and 2013 in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In total, the company paid $18,344 in back wages and $23,174 in civil money penalties.
“Employers in foreign labor certification programs must recruit workers for specific jobs and show that U.S. workers are not available to meet their needs. Employers of H-2B workers cannot act like temporary employment agencies, placing workers in various occupations outside of the terms of the H-2B contract,” Lazzeri added.
The Wage and Hour Division worked with the department’s Office of the Inspector General and State Department Diplomatic Security and the Wisconsin Department of Justice-Division Criminal Investigation on the case.
The H-2B nonimmigrant visa program permits employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrants to perform nonagricultural labor or services in the U.S. The employment must be of a temporary nature for a limited period such as a one-time occurrence, seasonal need, peak load need or intermittent need. In 2023, about 130,000 visa are available for employers to participate in the program.
Learn more about the Wage and Hour Division, including a search tool to use if you think you may be owed back wages collected by the division and how to file an online complaint. For confidential compliance assistance, employees and employers can call the agency’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243), regardless of where they are from.
Download the agency’s new Timesheet App for android devices to ensure hours and pay are accurate.