OC gov't contractor busted for hiring illegals

FULLERTON, Calif. The /*American Civil Liberties Union*/ (ACLU) filed the suit on behalf of immigrant workers who claim the company abused them, denied them overtime pay and threatened them.

The complaint was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other groups against laboratory equipment supplier Terra Universal Inc.

Illegal immigrants working for a government contractor were kept in virtual economic slavery, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday. The Fullerton-based manufacturer of laboratory equipment allegedly used the fear of deportation against employees. The lawsuit alleges employees had to work off medical bills and worked without overtime.

On June 29, /*US Immigration and Customs Enforcement*/ (ICE) agents raided Terra Universal Inc. in Fullerton. They arrested 43 people suspected of being in the country illegally. The company employs nearly 150 people. ICE agents found alleged violations of nearly every wage law on the books.

The ACLU and private attorneys filed a lawsuit against Terra Universal Inc. Tuesday.

Terra Universal employee Carlos Lomeli said at a news conference that in five and a half years, he was spit on, belittled and humiliated by the owner. He was forced to train people who made twice his salary.

"For example, in some occasions we worked up to 13 hours straight five days a week, and Terra Universal did not pay me overtime," Lomeli said through an interpreter.

It's not unusual for employers to take advantage of illegal workers. The workers don't report anything because they are afraid of being deported. At Terra they allegedly were making half what legal co-workers were paid.

"Our employment laws provide everyone equal workplace rights regardless of what country you came from, how you got here and your immigration status," said ACLU attorney Jennie Pasquarella.

"In all my years of practicing law I've never seen such a sophisticated and oppressive scheme to cheat employees of their wages," said attorney for the plaintiffs Randy Renick.

Terra Universal supposedly had a lot of injuries, from broken bones to cuts from the equipment used in manufacturing. The workers say if they were treated by a doctor or hospital as a result of a workplace injury, the employer would take the cost out of their paychecks.

"A red dot on a person's human resources file meant they were denied equal pay, overtime wages, vacation, holiday and sick days," said Pasquarella.

California law requires employers to pay overtime to all their employees regardless of legal status. The Department of Labor is investigating.

Lawyers for the firm said the company manufactures laboratory equipment for the U.S. military and other government clients.

Terra Universal's Chief Operating Officer Ken Harms says the company values its employees and is sad to hear some may be dissatisfied.

The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this report.

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