Naples farmworkers accused of fraud plead not guilty
Dalia Alvarez is aware what her two friends from El Salvador did to secure employment at a Naples vegetable-packing plant, but she doesn’t believe they should have been arrested, charged with workers’ compensation fraud and identity theft and be told to pay $10,000 bond.
“I know they used fake papers to get the job,” said Alvarez, a Naples resident who helped bond out several friends after a raid of a Naples packing plant called Fruit Dynamics. “But if a boss in a big company knows they used fake papers, then he should have some blame, too.”
On Monday, Naples farmworkers arrested for compensation fraud and identity theft last month pleaded not guilty in Collier County court. Their next court date hasn’t been set, said attorney Donald Day, who is representing 64 of the 105 charged farm workers. The Florida Insurance Fraud Division arrested the workers on July 16 at Fruit Dynamics on Mercantile Avenue. Many of the workers were detained, most of them presumed to be in the country illegally.
Day said at least two of his clients are still in jail. He said he wasn’t sure if immigration holds are still being used on the workers. Alvarez said of the 105 arrested workers, at least eight are still in jail because of immigration issues. The Equal Voice Network, an immigrant support group, held a news conference Monday to ask for the charges to be dropped.
“They are not criminals,” said Blanca Moreno with the Equal Voice Network. “They are people working because they have families they need to support. They are doing work few people in the community want to do. It’s hard work. They put food on the table for the United States. Right now, our community has to stick together and tell (the state) they need to stop the injustice.”
Immigrant advocates say the state should focus on employers when it comes to the unauthorized hiring of immigrants. Authorities say many of the workers at the plant may have used fake or stolen Social Security numbers.
“They didn’t steal identities; it’s false numbers,” said Isabel Sousa of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
Using a fake ID to gain employment or to submit a benefit claim is a third-degree felony, under Florida law. Oakes Farms, owner of Fruit Dynamics, has said it will try to prevent the fraud in the future, but “we run the risk of discrimination if we challenge workers that show a valid ID and Social Security.”
“The irony here is these workers would never get anything if they got injured,” Day said. “If you’re using false identification and you get injured, workman’s compensation would refuse to pay you. The insurance companies are the ones who would make money.”
Day said there are several current legal challenges in the state system that could impact his clients. The Florida Supreme Court is reviewing if the workers’ compensation provision used to prosecute the workers is constitutional. A St. Lucie-based attorney has petitioned the Florida Supreme Court, challenging if the provision can be used to prosecute workers who provided false Social Security or alien registration numbers to get a job.
“If the state issues a ruling, all of these charges could go away,” Day said.
It’s not clear when the Florida Supreme Court would make a ruling on the St. Lucie petition. Until then, the Naples farm workers wait for their next hearing. None of the workers attended Monday’s first appearance, but they will be required to be at the next hearing.
“One of them has an 8-month-old baby,” Alvarez said. “After the raid happened, I had to go to jail and sign her out. I picked up the baby at 1 in the morning from the babysitter. It’s a bad situation.”