Tortilla Factory Owner Gets Jail Time for Violating Payroll Laws
By E. C. GOGOLAK Published: July 8, 2013
The owner of a Brooklyn tortilla factory where a worker died in 2011 after falling into a mixing machine was sentenced on Thursday to 90 days in jail, after pleading guilty to labor law violations for failing to pay his workers adequate wages, the New York State attorney general’s office said.
The factory owner, Erasmo Ponce, also pleaded guilty on behalf of his company, Tortilleria Chinantla, to having failed to obtain workers’ compensation insurance for his employees. Mr. Ponce’s sentencing in Brooklyn Criminal Court was a sobering change of fortune for a man who was once widely admired as a success story among Mexican immigrants in New York City.
“All of our labor laws — minimum wage laws, the workers’ compensation law, safety and health laws — exist to protect vulnerable workers and ensure a basic safety net of protection,” Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a statement. “My office will use all tools at our disposal, including criminal charges where appropriate, to seek justice for New York’s workers and their families.”
On January 24, 2011, Juan Baten, a 22-year-old Guatemalan immigrant working at Mr. Ponce’s factory in Bushwick, fell into a machine used to mix dough, and was crushed to death in its churning mechanism. After his death, state officials began investigating Mr. Ponce and his operation, and found that the company had been operating without workers’ compensation insurance for almost a year. The factory was shut down. The state later allowed the plant to reopen, but in July 2011, federal officials cited the company for safety violations.
The charges brought against Mr. Ponce in his conviction on Monday, however, are not related to safety violations that may have contributed to Mr. Baten’s death, Melissa Grace, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said on Monday.
Mr. Ponce, 57, was arrested by the attorney general’s office in March 2012. In June of that year, he pleaded guilty to failing to pay adequate wages, a misdemeanor. He also pleaded guilty on behalf of his company to another count of failure to pay wages, and a count of failure to secure workers’ compensation insurance for his employees, a felony.
In addition, Mr. Ponce was ordered to pay nearly $450,000 in restitution, $300,000 of which will go to the Workers’ Compensation Board to reimburse the agency for the benefit payment made to Mr. Baten’s 3-year-old daughter, Daisy. Another $138,000 will go to the New York State Department of Labor to cover overtime wages that Mr. Ponce failed to pay 28 employees from 2006 to 2011. The remaining amount will cover unpaid unemployment insurance taxes.
“It pains me that Juan will not see Daisy grow up,” Mr. Baten’s wife, Rosario Ramirez, 26, said in a statement released on Monday that was written in Spanish and translated into English by Brandworkers, an advocacy group that has been assisting her. “Although she doesn’t have her father’s love, I still wish for her a better future, and the restitution will help. The jail time means Erasmo Ponce did not get away with his crime and Juan’s death will not have been in vain.”
Mr. Ponce could not be reached for comment on Monday. Manuel Portela, Mr. Ponce’s lawyer, wrote in an e-mail that his client “knows that as a business and community leader, he should have acted in compliance with the law, and he is sorry.”