December 17, 2021
By Maria Pérez
What led to a migrant worker’s death from heatstroke?
He was just 24. And no one was held accountable for his death.
On a hot summer day in Georgia, Miguel Ángel Guzmán’s body was failing.
For hours, he had been crouching along rows of plants, picking and putting tomatoes into buckets. Workers say they weren’t given regular breaks, and new employees like Guzmán weren’t given shorter shifts to acclimate to the weather.
As Guzmán became sicker and could no longer stand, his co-workers asked that he be taken to a hospital. But a supervisor said he was faking and refused to call for help, according to several field workers who said they witnessed the incident. Guzmán lay on the ground for at least 20 minutes, the workers said, asking for help.
“He said: ‘Don’t leave me here; don’t abandon me. Take me to the hospital. I don’t want to die,’” Jose Alfredo Huervo recalled.
Eventually, workers put Guzmán in a truck, and the driver headed for help. But before he got to a hospital, he pulled off the road into a Waffle House parking lot. When paramedics arrived, Guzmán had no pulse. Shortly after, he was pronounced dead from heatstroke. He was just 24, a man who had come to America on a seasonal worker visa to earn money to build a home back in Mexico.
“We were very angry about what happened,” recalled worker Carlos Javier Tome, a 27-yearold from Mexico. “It could have been avoided.”
Yet no one was held accountable for Guzmán’s death.
When the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated, it found the contractor that hired Guzmán to work at the farm had not adequately protected workers from the heat. The agency fined the contractor $10,348.
But the company didn’t pay the fine and went out of business.The lack of accountability in Guzmán’s death in 2018 underscores a common problem in the American food industry: Guest workers who legally travel to the United States each season to help plant, pick and harvest food face risks many steps along the way. They can be subjected to illegal recruiting fees, poor working conditions and bosses who shortchange their wages. And when problems are exposed, contractors and farms often evade or fight liability.
Federal data does not track how many guest farmworkers like Guzmán die on the job, but it is believed to be rare. More common, federal records show, is workers being cheated out of wages.
Brothers Carlos and Lorenzo Tome, who were with Guzmán the day he died, soon were bused to Wisconsin to work at cabbage, greens and squash farms – the same fields where Guzmán was supposed to spend that summer, too. The Tome brothers and several other workers say that while in Wisconsin hundreds of dollars were missing from their checks, leading them to briefly go on strike. The Labor Department investigated, concluding the workers were indeed owed wages.
Middleman companies that recruit, hire and oversee guest workers to toil on U.S. farms – commonly called farm labor contractors – are often blamed for this kind of exploitation.
According to criminal indictments and allegations in civil lawsuits filed in various states, labor contractors have driven workers into debt with illegal recruitment fees and other expenses. Some have confiscated workers’ passports, charged them if they wanted to quit their jobs or threatened them with deportation. Others have asked employees to work in hazardous conditions or provided the required housing in camps with no drinkable water and infested with rodents.
While some labor contractors are large firms that are financially sound, others are small with few assets and might be unable to pay fines and back wages. Some owners are only a step above migrant workers on the economic ladder.
Farmers often fight being held liable when things go wrong, saying they don’t employ the guest workers – the contractor does. Yet farms may profit from having an exploited workforce because it can be cheaper than hiring their own workers or contractors who follow the law. In some instances, farmers have hired contractors with spotty labor records, including accusations of labor trafficking.
The U.S. is relying on record-high numbers of migrant guest farmworkers, and over the past decade an increasing percentage are brought in by contractors. That means more foreign workers face potential abuse.
Labor advocates say many workers don’t quit because they would lose their visas, and if they speak out, they might get fired, making it difficult to pay off the debts they took on to come to America in the first place – essentially trapping them in poor jobs.
According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY analysis and interviews with leading researchers, less than 10% of all employers authorized by the Labor Department to bring in guest workers from 2016 through mid-2021 were farm labor contractors, but contractors accounted for a quarter of employers cited by the agency’s wage and hour division for violations of guest-worker regulations.
And contractors account for more than half of the employers temporarily banned by the division since 2017 from bringing in more guest workers.
Jesus Beiza, the owner of Beiza Brothers Harvesting, the labor contractor company that recruited Guzmán and oversaw his work in the field, did not return messages seeking comment.
His brother, Richard Beiza, operator of the company, said he always treated his workers well and denied any wrongdoing. He said that workers could take breaks when they wanted and that the company paid workers everything it owed them.
“I have always cared for my people,” he said.
He said he was late paying some of his workers in Wisconsin because a farm for which he was supplying employees didn’t pay him for four weeks. He told his fieldworkers as much. “As I told the boss, if he doesn’t pay me my money, how can I pay you?” he said, according to a video of the conversation obtained by the Journal Sentinel.
Beiza said he and his brother do not have the assets to pay the money the government says the company owes in fines and back wages. He said the company no longer operates and that he now works as a truck driver for $15 an hour.
Michael Marsh of the trade group National Council of Agricultural Employers said cases of worker exploitation are rare. He said that bad actors should be held accountable but that farmers shouldn’t be held liable for contractors’ violations.
The Journal Sentinel and USA TODAY retraced the story of Guzmán and his co-workers, reviewed other cases of labor violations and analyzed federal data to illustrate how guest farmworkers can be put at risk.
Shortly after Guzmán died, coworker Abelardo Aburto recalled thinking: “If this happens to another co-worker, or if it happens to me, the same thing is going to happen. I’m going to end up dying.”
A promise of a better life When Gúzman was recruited to work in the farm fields of America, he was living in Chila, a town of 2,100 in southern Mexico. He and his wife, Anai Rosas, lived on the lower floor of his parents’ home, and he worked on the family’s farm, taking care of goats and lambs.
Guzmán, his wife said, wanted to save money to build a home together. About 170 miles to the east, in Tapalapan, brothers Carlos and Lorenzo Tome also wanted a home of their own. Carlos was living with his in-laws; Lorenzo was building an apartment atop his father’s home that needed windows, doors, flooring and wiring.
It’s unclear who recruited Guzmán to the United States, but the Tome brothers say that a recruiter for Georgia-based Beiza Brothers Harvesting told them about field work in Wisconsin.
They say the recruiter asked the brothers and others to give him about $700 apiece, which would cover transportation to the border and their stay in Monterrey, where they had to be interviewed at the U.S. Consulate and receive their guest-worker visas. Each worker also paid $190 for a visa. Several workers said the recruiter told them Beiza Brothers would reimburse them for all costs.
Carlos and Lorenzo’s father got a credit card and withdrew about $1,500 at a 20% monthly interest rate, they said. Other workers struggled to come up with the money: One sold his car; another said his grandmother put up the deed to her small farm as collateral.
Employers can ask workers to front travel costs and visa fees, but federal rules and court decisions require that they reimburse that money – and typically much of it in the workers’ first paycheck.
U.S. law bans charging workers recruitment fees for the prospect for a job. But the Center for Migrants’ Rights, an advocacy group operating in the U.S. and Mexico, said a quarter of the 100 guest farmworkers it interviewed in 2019 and 2020 had paid recruitment fees.
When the Tome brothers arrived at the hotel in Monterrey, they said the rooms weren’t paid for as promised. They would later learn they also needed to pay for transportation to the U.S. border – even though they believed their $700 upfront payment was to cover such costs.
The brothers and other workers said they still don’t know who kept the money they paid the recruiter.
In an interview, company operator Richard Beiza said his firm didn’t charge anyone and that it paid for the workers’ visas.
An unbearable situation Guzmán and the Tome brothers got their visas and crossed the border. Instead of heading to Wisconsin, they were bused to Moultrie, Georgia – the heart of one of America’s agricultural powerhouses.
Lorenzo Tome recalled that he arrived penniless and had to borrow $100 from a relative for him and his brother to buy food. Other workers shared food with newcomers.
Employers are required to provide free housing to guest workers. According to its federal application to bring in guest workers, Beiza Brothers housed many of the employees on property the company owned or rented in Moultrie.
Worker Abelardo Aburto said that for several days he had to sleep on an air mattress on the floor of a former church. Workers could buy lunch in the field, but they had to supply their own breakfast and dinner. Regulations require employers to provide either kitchens or inexpensive meals.
Aburto said that in his first few days, the former church had no stove or refrigerator. For dinner, he said, he ate dehydrated noodle soups he prepared with hot water from a coffee maker.
Jose Alfredo Huervo said he slept in a two-bedroom trailer with five others. Rain would leak inside, and there were cockroaches and fleas. For a few days, when the stove didn’t work, they set bonfires to cook.
Several workers said their housing didn’t have air conditioner units, and so they bought fans.
Víctor Omar López, who worked in Georgia for months, said he took showers before going to bed to cool off, but soon was sweating again. He called the situation “unbearable.”
In the fields, six workers told the Journal Sentinel that supervisors pushed them to work faster or to not take breaks. López remembered a forewoman taunting the crew: Weren’t they men?
Employers are required to pay guest workers a minimum hourly wage no matter how much they pick. For Guzmán and the Tome brothers, it was supposed to be $13.06. But several workers said they received far less.
According to interviews with workers, they were given breaks only at lunch time or when they were moved to other fields. Some said they took a moment to rest in the fields if they felt ill. Others said that they would crouch among the tomato plants, where there was shade and where a foreman couldn’t spot them. Water would sometimes run out, they said, but they were told to keep picking.
In a statement to federal inspectors, Richard Beiza said he made sure there was water in the fields. In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, he said workers could rest when needed. There were bunk beds in the church, he said, and he denied workers went without stoves and refrigerators. He said sometimes workers broke appliances, but he replaced them.
The temperature inside the housing was fine to sleep, he said, and the company provided fans.
Death in the field
On June 19, 2018, Gúzman called his wife from Georgia and told her he was proud because he had picked more tomatoes than crew workers with more experience. That meant that he would be able to make more money.
The next evening, Guzmán only messaged her, saying he was tired and wanted to rest. After he woke up in the morning, at around 7 a.m. her time, he again messaged her: He said he loved her, and he wanted to tell her about a beautiful dream he had had about her.
That afternoon, the temperature rose to 91 degrees. But workers said it felt hotter in the field because the tomato plants blocked any breeze, and black plastic on the ground around the plants trapped the heat.
Lorenzo Tome recalled that at one point he noticed Guzmán was shaking and holding onto a truck for support. Lorenzo placed him in the shade of the truck, then helped him to the side of the field, where he and another worker set him down under some trees.
Guzmán begged for help, but several workers who witnessed the incident later told the Journal Sentinel that supervisor Armando Hernandez would not take him to a hospital.
“We were screaming to Armando to take him to the hospital, because if not, he was going to die there. And he said no,” Carlos Tome recalled. “He laughed at all of us. He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with him.’ He said, ‘I think he is pretending.’ He said, ‘He wants to go home.’”
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, Hernandez said he never said that he thought the sick worker was faking and that only about five minutes passed between the moment he learned Guzmán fell ill and him being taken away.
“I did what I could,” he said.
Workers fanned Guzmán with pieces of cardboard and their hats. When the Beiza Brothers mechanic happened by in a truck, he called the office on his cellphone. Two workers helped Guzmán into the truck, and the mechanic drove toward the office in Moultrie. One worker told the Journal Sentinel that between 20 and 30 minutes passed between the time Guzmán was taken to the side of the field and when the mechanic took him for help. But five other workers said an hour or more passed.
The most logical route from the field to Moultrie passed near a hospital, but it’s unclear whether the mechanic knew that. Two miles from the office, he pulled over in a Waffle House parking lot. He was met there by the office manager, Rosemary Meza, who was already on the line with a 911 dispatcher. She told him to get an ambulance there as soon as possible because Guzmán was vomiting, overheated and convulsing.
“It looks like he is having a seizure,” she said, according to the call, obtained through a public records request by the Journal Sentinel.
About a minute later, she told the dispatcher: “He’s not responding. Sir, he’s not breathing.” She performed CPR until paramedics arrived in less than two minutes. But Guzmán had no pulse.
“We were keeping him hydrated,” the manager told a paramedic, “but I guess he got too hot.”
By the time the ambulance reached the emergency room, Guzmán’s temperature was nearly 109 degrees. Paramedics had not been able to restore his heartbeat. Later, the coroner would rule that he had died from heatstroke, noting he had not been acclimated to the conditions.
OSHA started its investigation the next day. Richard Beiza told an inspector that the workers could take breaks whenever they wanted. But the agency concluded that the company hadn’t scheduled regular breaks to fight the heat and hadn’t provided formal heat training or shorter shifts to acclimate workers.
OSHA documents reviewed by the Journal Sentinel did not address issues related to how the company or its employees responded to Guzmán’s illness.
In an interview, Beiza said he had told the field supervisor to allow workers to rest. Beiza said he stopped by the field the day Guzmán died, and he acknowledged it was hot. But he said that when he left the field, before Guzmán got sick, everyone was taking a break.
Hernandez, the supervisor accused by workers of not taking Guzmán’s illness seriously, said he quit his job shortly after the death and now works for a Georgia lumber company. He said his former employer never told him how to respond to a heatstroke.
“They only throw you out there helter-skelter and you don’t know what to do,” he said.
In January 2019, OSHA fined Beiza Brothers $10,348 in Guzmán’s death.
The company didn’t pay that fine. Labor Department spokesman Eric Lucero said the debt has been referred to the U.S. Treasury Department for collection.
The day Guzmán died, Rosas stayed up past midnight, waiting for her husband’s call. The following day was her 25th birthday, and Guzmán always wanted to be the first to wish her a happy birthday.
When he didn’t call, she thought he might have just been too tired, and so she went to sleep.
About two weeks after Gúzman’s death, in July 2018, the Georgia workers were bused 1,000 miles north top Racine, Wisconsin. There, they worked long hours in nearby fields, picking beets and squash, planting cabbage and packing green beans. They were up early in the morning and often not done until 10 p.m.
“You get used to work, right? To wake up at 4 a.m., to keep going,” Carlos Tome said. “When payday arrives, you are happy because you are going to be able to have money. You are going to be able to send money to your family.
“But for us, that never happened,” he said. Richard Beiza “always held the checks.”
It wasn’t the first time the Beiza Brothers faced allegations over wages. In Georgia, inspectors cited the company for not paying nearly $150,000 in wages and travel
reimbursements in 2017 to 184 guest workers and U.S. employees. The company was fined $219,262 and agreed to pay the back wages.
The wages were due a few days before Guzmán and the Tome brothers crossed the border in the summer of 2018. The Labor Department would later file claims on two bonds posted by the Beiza Brothers to recover part of the money, which indicates the contractor defaulted on them.
Also in the summer of 2018, according to state records, the company didn’t buy Wisconsin worker’s compensation insurance, which employers are required to hold to cover work injuries.
“It appears from everything that Beiza Brothers Harvesting was a fly-by-night contractor, which means that it doesn’t have the capital to be responsible for the wages of so many workers,” said Erica Sweitzer-Beckman, an attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin who filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development on behalf of Beiza Brothers’ workers attempting to recover back wages.
Five workers told the Journal Sentinel their paychecks in Wisconsin were delayed and missing hours. Most checks were hundreds of dollars short, according to estimates in the complaint filed with the state workforce department. The case is ongoing.
Lorenzo Tome said that with little money coming in, his father back in Mexico had to help support his wife and children, then ages 5 and 8.
One morning in August 2018, about 18 workers, including the Tome brothers, did not board the bus to the fields. They decided to strike.
Farmers held not liable
The dispute was mostly about money. But it also highlighted a broader issue debated for decades: When are farmers responsible for what happens to those working their fields?
The Beiza Brothers workers were planting and picking on farms operated by Michael Borzynski Farms and Borzynski Farms. While they are separate companies, Michael Borzynski had key roles in both businesses. He owned the former and assisted with farming operations of the latter, a business owned by his father, Joe Borzynski, and his uncle, David Borzynski.
By 2018, Borzynski Farms had grown into a large operation, cultivating over 7,000 acres in Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia and Texas and selling produce to regional supermarkets.
Borzynski Farms had previously hired a labor contractor accused of exploiting workers. Prosecutors said in court filings that in 2016 a family of farm labor contractors, operating as Garcia & Sons Harvesting and C & D Harvesting, conspired to force Mexican guest workers to work in Borzynski Farms’ Wisconsin fields. Prosecutors said the contractors threatened workers, didn’t pay all of their wages and took away their passports.
Five Garcia family members were indicted for human trafficking-related charges. They pleaded not guilty; the case is ongoing. Borzynski Farms is not a defendant in the case and has not been accused by prosecutors of wrongdoing.
When the Journal Sentinel in 2019 asked Borzynski Farms about the case, Stefanie Meiri, Michael’s sister, sent a statement saying that at no time did the company know about the abuse allegations. The statement said Borzynski Farms cut ties with the contractors when the company learned of the accusations.
The statement called the workers Garcia’s “own workforce.”
Worker advocates and farmers have long battled about when farmers should be considered joint employers.
In 1983, after receiving testimonies of abuse of workers, Congress made it easier to hold farmers accountable. Lawmakers defined “employ” more widely than the concept traditionally used by the courts, adopting the definition set in the federal minimum wage law.
But the new law excluded foreign guest workers from its protections.
States can adopt the wider federal definition of employer to protect guest workers, but that definition has been heavily disputed by policymakers from both parties, and court rulings have interpreted it differently.
Contractors will keep abusing workers until farmers are held liable, said Greg Schell, a lawyer who has litigated joint employment cases on behalf of workers.
In California, farmers are liable for wages of workers hired by contractors as long as they have 25 or more employees, and contractors supply more than five of them – a requirement supported by workers’ advocates.
Worker advocates say that if farmers faced more liability, they would have a stronger incentive to screen contractors.
In 2017, Michigan nursery Four Star Greenhouse hired labor contractor Juan Vasquez, who, according to Labor Department records, had a history of labor violations, including
$70,000 in unpaid farmworker wages. The following year, Vasquez didn’t pay the guest workers in Michigan for weeks, according to a workers’ lawsuit against the nursery. The nursery then sued Vasquez’s company, saying it should be held responsible for any cause related to the workers’ claims. Vasquez has not responded to the suit; the case is ongoing. After workers complained to nursery supervisors and the contractor, an employee of the contractor took a group of workers to a parking lot, where ICE agents arrested them, the workers alleged in their lawsuit. Workers said the contractor had promised to extend their visas but never did. The nursery said in court filings the workers didn’t show enough evidence they were employed by the nursery.
When Miguel Guzmán died from heatstroke in the Georgia field, OSHA did not open an inspection of the farm, MGI Farms, owned by Patrick Mobley. OSHA uses the narrower definition built by the courts to determine who is an employer. The agency may cite companies that aren’t a worker’s employer if they have some control over a hazard, but only in certain circumstances. Heat hazard is not one of them. Mobley declined to comment through Peggy Harrell, MGI’s office manager. In Wisconsin, Sweitzer-Beckman, the attorney for the guest workers seeking back wages, said her clients were employees of Beiza Brothers and the two Borzynski farms. The farms disagree. Michael Borzynski Farms said in responses filed with a state agency that the workers were employed solely by the contractor. Borzynski Farms attorney Stephen Kravit said the same in an email to the Journal Sentinel.
Problems with ‘el patrón’
On Aug. 6, 2018,shortly after deciding not to show up for work, about a dozen Beiza employees confronted manager Richard Beiza outside of the Racine motel where the workers and Beiza were temporarily living.
In a video of the interaction, Beiza is sitting in a truck in the parking lot with workers talking with him through the open driver’s side window. One tells him he doesn’t have any money.
Beiza responds that he had problems with “el patrón,” the boss. Workers said that was what he called the farmers. “He didn’t pay me for four weeks,” Beiza tells the workers. “The check that I paid the other time, I paid it out of my pocket, and I don’t have any more money.” It’s unclear which farm he is referring to.
That same day, someone contacted UMOS, a Milwaukee-based group that assists farmworkers. UMOS staffers talked with the workers and Beiza and called Racine police, saying workers staying at the motel were afraid Beiza would retaliate against them, a police report states.
Beiza said he paid the workers shortly after, but some told the Journal Sentinel they were still owed money.
The U.S. Labor Department agreed. After investigating, the agency provided the Tome brothers and other workers with some of their owed wages, which in some cases exceeded $1,000. To cover the costs, the government can make claims on bonds that farm labor contractors must post when they bring in guest workers, but the funds may not be enough to cover all wages owed.
Labor Department spokesman Edwin Nieves declined to answer questions about the case, which remains open. Representatives of Borzynski Farms and Michael Borzynski Farms declined interview requests.
Attorney Aaron McCann sent a statement on behalf of Michael Borzynski Farms that said the company takes seriously its obligations to comply with the law and that it paid Beiza Brothers on time and according to their contractual agreements.
Kravit, the attorney for Borzynski Farms, wrote in an email that the farm fully paid Beiza’s invoices on time. The farm, he wrote, found errors in the invoices and actually paid the contractor $10,262 more than requested. He also said that Borzynski Farms has not been contacted by the state of Wisconsin about the workers’ complaint over back wages. He said Borzynski Farms is not a party to that case, which involves Michael Borzynski Farms.
He said Borzynski Farms had to rely on farm labor contractors because it has been unable to hire enough workers directly for the past five years. He said the company does its best to ensure guest workers are safe, paid and treated with respect.
“During the time Borzynski Farms contracted with Beiza, it appeared that the workers were safe, paid properly and treated respectfully,” Kravit wrote. “The relationship ended when Borzynski Farms learned that Beiza was no longer licensed.” The Labor Department in 2018 debarred Beiza Brothers Harvesting from bringing in guest workers for three years.
That decision didn’t come soon enough for the 2018 workers, including Guzmán.
According to Georgia state records, Beiza Brothers no longer exists. Jesus Beiza transferred the company’s real estate in Moultrie to his wife and a company managed by his father, according to tax assessor records in Georgia. Jesus Beiza and his wife went on to open an ice cream store in Moultrie.
Some former Beiza migrant workers stayed in the U.S.; others returned to Mexico. Carlos Tome is a factory worker in Mesa, Arizona; his brother, Lorenzo, is a roofer in Milwaukee.
In Mexico, Guzmán’s wife visits his grave, leaving flowers and sometimes singing a love song they both liked. At first, she asked him why he died, why he left her. Now, she tells him that she is OK, that he can go on his way. He doesn’t need to worry.