As Florida’s sugar harvest nears its end, it’s a bustling time in the fields and mills that produce hundreds of millions of dollars for Big Sugar, its contractors and employees.
Some of them are seasonal workers, non-citizens brought in by an industry that certifies to the government that no Americans are available to do the work they do.
But one group of American truckers told NBC 6, in their case, that is Big Sugar’s big lie.
The NBC 6 Investigators get results
Sugar is king in Clewiston, heralded on the city’s welcome sign as “America’s sweetest town.”
The bottom line can get sweeter for its biggest corporation, U.S. Sugar, the more it can lower costs of harvesting raw cane and hauling it by truck and rail to its refinery.
For the 2019-20 season, several American independent truckers started hauling trailers full of cane from U.S. Sugar fields for Caloosa Transport LLP, a partnership half-owned by general partner U.S. Sugar.
A contract, provided to NBC 6 Investigators, promised them $30 an hour up to seven days a week for up to eight months.
But one of the truckers, Paula Torres Martinez, told NBC 6 Investigators, “They only let us work two weeks. We got fired without any explanation, without telling us anything,” she said. “They used us. I felt used.”
Some of the workers say they invested more than $10,000 to get their trucks ready for the harvest season.
Now, they allege in a lawsuit, U.S. Sugar and Caloosa Transport LLP were conspiring to defraud them by lying to them and the US government.
In a response to the suit, both companies denied those claims, saying the case is about breach of contract – not fraud.
But the drivers’ attorney, Javier Basnuevo, has uncovered documents he says supports his clients’ claims.
In an August 2019 letter, U.S. Sugar’s agent told the U.S. Department of Labor it has an “emergency situation” and “harvested crop will rot in the field” unless it can hire 50 foreign workers with H-2A visas.
By completing the H-2A application, the company certified it "has been unsuccessful in locating sufficient numbers of qualified U.S. applicants for the job opportunity" and "there are insufficient U.S. workers available in the area(s) capable of performing the temporary services or labor in the job opportunity."
The drivers, who used their own trucks to begin the work in October 2019, told NBC 6 that was news to them.
“There are not many options,” said one of the plaintiffs, Leonard Cabrera Barroso. “These corporations have all the work, practically… if you want to work, you must work with them.”
Then, the final insult: They learned they were replaced with foreign workers making $11.24 an hour driving Caloosa’s trucks.
“I felt like they betrayed us, they lied to us, they used us,” Torres Martinez said.
In their lawsuit, they call it conspiracy to commit fraud – claiming U.S. Sugar filed “false and misleading applications” with the feds, while Caloosa “made false representations (to) and concealed facts from” the drivers.
“U.S. Sugar applied for these workers, then had them come down and lent them to Caloosa to do the same exact driving that my clients were under contract to perform,” Basnuevo said.
Citing sworn testimony from a Caloosa’s executive, Basnuevo added, “The only reasons these contracts were canceled was that foreign H-2A workers came to take their jobs.”
In that testimony, the Caloosa’s executive said the company determined "we no longer needed them ... (because) we had other drivers," the H-2A visa holders. Asked by Basnuevo if there were “other considerations into why you no longer needed the drivers," the Caloosa’s representative replied, "No."
Last week, in a motion to have a judge remove what they called “scandalous, immaterial and impertinent” allegations from the lawsuit, Caloosa and U.S. Sugar argued the truckers’ claim that they were replaced by H-2A visa workers is false.
They said the visa workers were hired as employees of U.S. Sugar, while the truckers were independent contractors who entered into an agreement with Caloosa.
In their motion, the companies’ attorney wrote the addition of U.S. Sugar and fraud claims in the lawsuit was a “vehicle to create scandal and capitalize on mischaracterizations of the H-2A program.”
In a separate motion to dismiss the fraud and conspiracy counts, they argued the dispute is, at most, about an alleged breach of contract and not fraud or conspiracy.
When asked about the case, U.S. Sugar referred NBC 6 to Caloosa.
In a statement to NBC 6, Caloosa would only say: “This relates to a private commercial contract dispute between Caloosa and a handful of independent trucking companies (that) Caloosa is currently working to resolve.”
But for the truckers whose livelihoods were upended, it’s also about U.S. Sugar and what they allege were its un-American ways.
“U.S. Sugar applied for foreign H-2A visa workers from the U.S. government by telling the U.S. government there were no American workers ready, willing and able to do that work,” attorney Basnuevo said. “That was, of course, untrue, because my clients were here, they were able to do the work and they had contracts to do so and they were doing it.”