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A Mexican migrant worker says he was one of two who did work earlier this year on Gov. Gary Herbert's Orem home and now is battling his employer over money he says was illegally withheld from him and his co-workers.
The worker, Alfredo Ortega,who was working legally in the country, isn't accusing Herbert of doing anything wrong or having any knowledge of the wage dispute with the landscaping firm which employed him.
But a group working with Ortega the New Orleans-based Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity said the incident shows that guest worker abuses are occurring in Utahns' own backyards, including in the governor's.
Angie Welling, the governor's spokeswoman, said the governor did hire the company, Golden Maintenance L.C., to do work in his yard, but had no knowledge of their practices.
"If the allegations are true that this company is exploiting guest workers in the State of Utah, that requires swift and aggressive action," Welling said. The governor's office contacted the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity to make them aware of how to file a wage claim with the Utah Labor Commission.
Jacob Horwitz, an organizer with the alliance, said a claim has been filed on behalf of Ortega and 29 other workers with the U.S. Department of Labor and it is under investigation.
A message left at the home of Golden Maintenance founder Golden Holt Jr. was not returned Tuesday.
Ortega said in a statement that he worked for three or four days in July at a house where, he was told, the governor lives.
"I installed a sandbox and leveled ground in the backyard with one other guest worker and two local workers. I also planted plants on the property there," he said.
But when Ortega got paid for the job, his employer deducted $200 for a "visa payment," which effectively reduced his pay from $7.25 per hour to $5.25 per hour, he said. The visa payment was deducted each week that Ortega worked for the company.
"All of us workers were very angry about this deduction from our skinny paychecks," Ortega said. "Even though we paid all the expenses to come from [Mexico] to Utah to work … they are taking these 'fees' from us with every paycheck."
Horwitz said that workers like Ortega were on an H-2B visa, which binds them to the employer who sponsors the worker's entry into the country. If a worker leaves, he or she can be deported.
"The workers are really trapped," Horowitz said. "Employers know that very well and they take advantage of that. It's a total race to the bottom."
Horwitz said he would like to see Herbert commit to strict enforcement of labor laws and perhaps stronger labor laws and some assurance that companies will follow the law. And he would like to see the state support workers like Ortega who come forward.
Earlier this year, the governor convened a discussion of immigration issues in which he said one of the principles that should drive immigration reform in Utah is that all employers should play by the rules.