State Shuts Tortilla Factory Where Worker Died

The Brooklyn tortilla factory where a Guatemalan worker died on Monday after he fell into an industrial dough mixer has been shut down by the state because it has been without workers’ compensation insurance for nearly a year, state officials said Friday.

Brian Keegan, a spokesman for the state Workers’ Compensation Board, said the insurance for the company, Tortilleria Chinantla, ran out last March 28 and the business has since accrued $56,000 in penalties for noncompliance.

Following the death of the worker, Juan Baten, 22, inspectors from the state board went to the factory, in East Williamsburg, and issued a stop-work order, which forbids it from operating until it gets workers’ compensation insurance and pays its fines, officials said.

Joe Cavalcante, another spokesman for the board, said the state does not immediately shutter every company that falls out of compliance.

“We handle matters with businesses who seem to have gone out of compliance first through correspondence,” Mr. Cavalcante explained.

But, he continued, state officials will close a business if an employee files a workers’ compensation claim while the company is out of compliance; if federal workplace inspectors detect workplace violations; if “very high penalties” accumulate; or if there is a workplace fatality, as was the case with Tortilleria Chinantla.

Mr. Baten’s death “got us there immediately,” Mr. Cavalcante said. The factory was closed down on Tuesday.

Mr. Cavalcante said the state had no record of an employee filing a workers’ compensation claim in the past year.

The company had let its policy run out once before, in 2008, the officials. It renewed its policy and paid a fine of $2,500 to settle the problem.

The company’s owner, Erasmo Ponce, a prominent figure in the region’s Mexican diaspora, was reached by phone on Friday afternoon but he said he was unable to talk and hung up. He did not answer other calls or a text message seeking comment.

Mr. Ponce told reporters earlier this week that the death was the first worker injury at his company and that it was “human error,” not a result of poor workplace conditions.

But Daniel Gross, the founding director of Brandworkers, an advocacy group based in Long Island City that represents workers in the food processing and retailing industries, accused Mr. Ponce of overseeing “sweatshop conditions” at Tortilleria Chinantla.

“The tragedy of Mr. Baten’s death will only be compounded if we miss the systematic nature of the exploitation in the sector,” Mr. Gross said. “This is the inevitable consequence of cutting the corners on worker safety.”

Powered By WizardRSS
Go to Source