OAKLEY, Idaho (CBS SF) — An Christmas tree company has been accused of human trafficking in a federal lawsuit alleging employees were forced to endure horrific conditions at a remote Sierra Nevada site in California and threatened to be shot if they did not keep working.
The lawsuit has been put on hold pending a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
However, according to the lawsuit, once in California the workers’ passports were seized, they were given tents to share and compelled to buy sleeping bags from the company at $35 each. They were forced to work outdoors and sleep in tents no matter the weather conditions, fed rotting food, forced to drink river water, and exposed to caustic chemicals, the suit alleged.
The five men who filed the lawsuit said they worked 12- to 13-hour days, six days a week cutting trees, planting other trees and spraying chemicals with no proper training or equipment, resulting in injuries and chemical burns that were never treated.
In addition to cutting down Christmas trees, Pure Forest provides herbicide, pesticide spraying and tree-thinning services for a California forest product company that owns 1.9 million acres of timberland in California and Washington. CEO Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth were listed as defendants in the federal suit.
According to the lawsuit, Pure Forest supervisors:
“under the supervision of Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth, constantly threatened Plaintiffs and the other workers, telling them repeatedly that they would shoot them and leave them for dead if they did not continue to work.”
“would shoot their guns off in the middle of the night to scare workers.”
“inflicted this psychological and verbal abuse to coerce Plaintiffs into believing that they would be seriously harmed if they did not work at a fast pace or tried to leave Pure Forest.”
“[The men] continued to work only because they had no other option. They were disoriented, confused, stuck in a remote part of the Sierra Nevada mountains miles from the nearest town, and they were in a foreign country where they did not speak the language.”
The suit said after ‘deductions’ for visa fees, food and other expenses, workers were often left with less than $100 for two weeks’ worth of work.
In October 2012, the suit says the workers were told there was no more work and were taken to a bus stop, where a foreman paid for bus tickets with money withheld from their last paychecks. The men were told their families would be harmed if they told anyone about their experiences.
In May, DHS agents served a search warrant at a home in Tehama County owned by Jeff Wadsworth and rented by one of the company foremen, Pedro Carbajal.
Court documents show agents seized a shotgun, ammunition, a laptop, cash and identification documents from the home. Carbajal has been charged as being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm and has a trial scheduled for November.
The lawsuit against Pure Forest ask for $1 million in damages.
In a statement, the Wadsworths’ attorneys denied the allegations, saying the suit was filed “after disgruntled employees’ failed attempt at obtaining money from the company by filing frivolous injury and unemployment benefits claims.”
“Jeff Wadsworth and Owen Wadsworth pride themselves on the well-treatment of all their employees and are surprised and saddened that a group of former employees have chosen to bring such allegations,” the statement said. “ We have been fully cooperative with the federal investigation and are confident that Jeff Wadsworth, Owen Wadsworth and Pure Forest LLC will soon be cleared of any and all wrongdoing.”