PORTLAND, Maine — The nonprofit Pine Tree Legal Assistance has filed a lawsuit alleging that two blueberry farm operators, a farm labor recruiter and various housing providers violated federal labor law in hiring for Maine’s 2008 blueberry harvest.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor alleges more than 250 violations of the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act during the 2008 blueberry harvest. Pine Tree, which helps people who can’t afford a lawyer, is pursuing the case through a special unit focused on agricultural workers in Maine.

The lawsuit claims contractor Carol Paul of Lamoine violated federal regulations while recruiting 18 migrant workers of Haitian descent for Ellsworth-based Coastal Blueberry Service Inc. and Hancock Foods Inc. in Hancock.

Attorney Frank McGuire, who represents Coastal Blueberry Service and Hancock Foods, said both companies “firmly deny” the allegations that they engaged in or authorized violations of the federal migrant worker law or that they failed to pay wages earned.

“Hancock Foods has a large number of satisfied workers, including many of Haitian origin, who return to work at the company year after year,” McGuire wrote in an email. He said the company is still evaluating the specifics of the 300-page lawsuit and plans to defend the case in court.

The lawsuit claims the contract recruiter, Paul, was not licensed as a federal labor contractor during that time and that workers were misled about amount of work and pay they would receive. The workers allegedly faced a breakdown that forced some to abandon their luggage during a bus trip to Maine and housing that was infested with insects, or was so crowded that workers had to sleep on floors.

The lawsuit also claims Paul retaliated against some of the workers after they consulted a private attorney regarding their rights under the federal migrant worker law. Paul was not available for comment Monday.

The lawsuit involves 18 men and women whom the suit states were U.S. citizens born in Haiti or Haitians who are permanent residents of the United States.

All but three of the plaintiffs are Florida residents.

Through the lawsuit, each plaintiff is seeking damages, unpaid wages, attorney fees and other relief. Five are seeking damages for pain and suffering related to the claim that Paul fired them for consulting a private attorney.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.