The owners of a Wisconsin timber company who lied to workers from Mexico and Central America about where they would work and how much they would earn must pay more than $1 million in back wages and civil penalties.
Alfredo Aguilar, who co-owns Northwoods Forestry, Inc. with his wife Patricia Aguilar, pleaded guilty to one count of fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Madison.
The plea agreement states that between 2015 and the end of 2018, Aguilar recruited workers from Mexico and Central America through the federal H-2B visa program. Aguilar made statements to the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that the recruits would work in forestry jobs in Wisconsin, Maine, Minnesota and New Hampshire.
Stay informed on the latest news
Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.
Instead, those workers were placed in meat packing, construction, roofing, agriculture and landscaping jobs. Aguilar admitted he told the H-2B workers they could legally work in those fields when he knew that wasn’t true.
Aguilar also admitted that Northwoods Forestry paid less than prevailing wage rates, did not pay overtime and illegally deducted charges for transportation and safety equipment from workers’ wages.
U.S. Department of Labor District Director of the Wages and Hour Division, Kristen Tout, told Wisconsin Public Radio there were discrepancies between the wages promised in federal H2B filings and those workers ultimately received.
“In the course of hiring and in paying these workers who arrived with their H-2B visa to perform Forest Service work, there’s a potential then that they would be shortcutting them for the work they actually performed,” Tout said.
The Department of Labor investigation also focused on A&C Forestry Services LLC in Eau Claire, which is owned by an employee of Northwoods Forestry. A&C Forestry Services also placed foreign workers, recruited by Aguilar, in non-forestry related jobs.
Aguilar declined to comment on the findings or plea agreement when reached by WPR.
As part of Aguilar’s plea, the company will pay $1.1 million in back wages and a civil penalty of $210,696.
Tout said her office has already received calls from affected employees.
“We are starting to hear from workers,” Tout said. “And that really is our ultimate goal, to ensure that this money gets into the hands of the people who earned it.”
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 263 workers were victimized by the scheme.
Aguilar is scheduled for sentencing on April 19.
Northwoods Forestry previously violated the H2-B visa program regulations in 2009, 2011 and 2013 with four contracts in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The company was ordered to pay a total of $18,344 in back wages and $23,174 in civil penalties in those cases.
According to the latest data from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, there were a record 7,020 foreign individuals working in Wisconsin under federal H2-B contracts in 2021.
Trustworthy news, world-class music and Wisconsin stories … made possible by people like you.
Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2024, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.