TWIN FALLS, Idaho — A federal lawsuit filed against an Idaho-based company contending it engaged in human trafficking has been put on hold while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigates.
Five Mexican men with work visas filed the lawsuit in April against Pure Forest LLC in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California, the Times-News reports (http://bit.ly/1ojKmIE) in a story on Wednesday. The lawsuit seeks $1 million in damages and a jury trial.
The lawsuit was put on hold for 120 days starting June 26 pending a criminal investigation by the federal agency.
Pure Forest, headquartered in Oakley in south-central Idaho, sells Christmas trees. It also offers tree thinning and pesticide spraying in California and Washington. Jeff Wadsworth is named in the lawsuit as the company's chief executive officer. Owen Wadsworth is named as a member of Pure Forest.
An attorney for the company in a statement said the suit was filed by "disgruntled employees" who failed to get money through "frivolous injury and employment benefit claims."
The company, listed in Idaho as a limited liability company since 2009, said it expects to be cleared of wrongdoing.
"We are confident that the truth will prevail," the statement said.
The complaint, which doesn't name the men due to what the suit says are reasonable fears of retaliation, said the men and other workers were recruited from Hidalgo, Mexico, in 2012. They were promised 16.47 an hour for nine months and 40-hour work weeks. The company also promised, the complaint said, to pay visa and travel expenses, provide meals and residential trailers.
The lawsuit said the men were taken to a remote location in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, never got a day off and were forced to sleep in tents. It also said the men were fed rotting food, had to drink river water, and that the chemicals they worked with burned their skin.
Some of the work involved spraying chemicals, according to the lawsuit, but the company didn't provide proper equipment, clothing or training.
Supervisors were armed, and one threated a worker with a "bullet in his head." Additionally, the lawsuit said, the men were frightened into believing that if they tried to leave they would be harmed, or that their families in Mexico would be harmed.
"(The men) continued to work only because they had no other option," the lawsuit said. "They were disoriented, confused, stuck in a remote part of the Sierra Nevada mountains miles from the nearest town, and they were in a foreign country where they did not speak the language."
The suit said that deductions from the workers' paychecks for visa fees and food put their actual wages below state and federal minimum wage requirements.
Federal investigators in May searched a home owned by Jeff Wadsworth in Gerber, California, taking a laptop, documents, ammunition, a shotgun and about $1,700 in cash.
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com