Undocumented workers hired at Indiana pork plant, suit says

Kristine Guerra, kristine.guerra@indystar.com
8:11 p.m. EST February 16, 2016

A federal lawsuit says workers were hired at Indiana Packers Corp. with fake IDs and claims the practice is rampant.

(Photo: Alex Farris/IndyStar)

Hundreds of undocumented workers were hired at a northern Indiana pork processing plant over the past four years, according to a federal lawsuit filed against two employees of the Indiana Packers Corp.

The lawsuit claims the company's human resources staff hires applicants for low-paying production jobs without checking their previous employment despite evidence they're using fake Social Security numbers and identification cards.

The suit claims the practice is rampant and ongoing and holds down wages for all workers.

"Many workers openly admit they are illegal, or were working under false identities, and/or had previously worked at IPC under a different name," according to the complaint.

The complaint was filed Tuesday by a former Indiana Packers employee against Marisol Martinez, an employee in the company's human resources department, and James Harding, director of human resources. It seeks class-action status in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana.

Indiana Packers could not immediately be reached for comment. A call to a number associated with Harding was not returned Tuesday, and efforts to reach Martinez were unsuccessful.

Based in Delphi, about 20 miles northeast of Lafayette, Indiana Packers is the largest employer in rural Carroll County, which has a population of about 20,000, according to the 2010 Census estimate. It's jointly owned by Japan-based companies Mitsubishi Corp. and Itoham Foods Inc.

The lawsuit, filed by a former employee of Indiana Packers Corp., seeks class-action status in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. (Photo: Alex Farris/IndyStar)

The lawsuit says Martinez, who reports to Harding, conducts employee orientations and fills out the employer portion of applicants' I-9 forms, which are required by federal law to ensure employees are authorized to work in the United States. In many cases, according to the complaint, the defendants knew applicants were using fake documents to pass a check on E-Verify, an online system that allows employers to determine applicants' eligibility to work in the country.

"You’re required to use it in good faith," Chicago lawyer Howard Foster said of E-Verify. "If you believe that the documents relate to somebody else, you’re supposed to ask questions about the person, which they don’t do. They don’t ask any questions."

Foster, of Howard PC, said the alleged scheme resulted in depression of wages of all hourly production employees and is a violation of statutes that qualify under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

RICO, which usually deals with organized crime, was expanded by Congress in the 1990s to also include violations of federal immigration law. Acts that violate the Immigration and Nationality Act are considered racketeering activities under the RICO statute.

Foster's client, Andrew O'Shea, accepted a job as a production worker at Indiana Packers in 2013, making about $10.50 an hour. While working there, O'Shea overheard a supervisor say that if he needed more workers, Martinez "will get me some more illegals," the complaint says.

Foster said his client, who no longer works at Indiana Packers, will not be interviewed. Foster also said he does not know whether the company's high-level executives are aware of the alleged practice of hiring undocumented workers.

O’Shea was fired at Indiana Packers in 2014 for insubordination, Foster said. He was hired back but later quit.

Indiana Packers recently announced a $40.6 million expansion of its Delphi plant. The company said it's adding 43,000 square feet to its Delphi facility and creating up to 91 jobs this year. The Indiana Economic Development Corp. offered Indiana Packers up to $475,000 in tax credits and up to $28,000 in training grants if it fulfills its job promises.

Gov. Mike Pence, along with executives from Mitsubishi Corp. and Indiana Packers, made the announcement during a meeting in Tokyo in September. Indiana Packers also opened a warehouse and shipping operation in Frankfort in 2014.

Indiana Packers employs more than 2,000 full-time employees and sells pork and bacon in U.S., Japan and Mexico, according to a news release. A majority of the company's customers in the U.S. are from the Midwest.

The company, founded in 1991, processes 3.5 million pounds of fresh pork every day and produces and packages smoked meat products, including ham, bacon and sausage, under the Indiana Kitchen brand, the release said.

The lawsuit comes less than a month after Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, announced the creation of a commission to study the effects of illegal immigration on Indiana's economy; how many illegal immigrants live in the state; and whether federal law needs reform, among other issues.

The commission will make recommendations for future legislation.

Carmel Republican Sen. Mike Delph, who authored a bill this session to penalize businesses for hiring undocumented workers, will be the commission's chair. Delph's bill failed to advance in the Senate.

Illegal immigration has increased the supply of low-skilled, low-wage labor in industries such as construction, food service, meatpacking, landscaping and agriculture, according to a study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The study also noted that the influx of undocumented immigrants has resulted in depressed wages for legal workers.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 93,000 undocumented immigrants live in Indiana, a majority of whom are from Mexico. In Carroll County, where the Indiana Packers plant is located, Hispanics make up about 4 percent of the population. In neighboring Frankfort, where Indiana Packers has a shipping warehouse, 25 percent are Hispanic, according to census numbers.

Call IndyStar reporter Kristine Guerra at (317) 444-6209. Follow her on