The Utah attorney general’s office has made multiple arrests in an “appalling” labor trafficking case involving a West Bountiful landscaping and snow removal company, the office announced Wednesday.
State investigators say Rubicon Contractors LLC hired approximately 150 Mexican laborers using H-2B visas, and forced them to work and live in “extremely poor” conditions under threat of deportation.
The workers were undertrained and underpaid, according to a probable cause statement. What money employees did receive was loaded onto a debit-like card, from which the company could withdraw funds. Employees were routinely peppered with deductions to their meager pay for housing and equipment, according to a news release.
For instance, workers were forced to buy a cellphone from the company so they could use its mobile app to log hours; had to pay for their own equipment, like shovels; and were charged if equipment was damaged or work wasn’t completed on time, according to a probable cause statement.
Rubicon also allegedly charged workers about $300 every two weeks to live with other employees, two to three people per room, in unfurnished houses.
Law enforcement documents say the employees were not allowed to work or live elsewhere, were forced to work when they were sick and were not allowed to use the restroom when working.
Many employees relied on food banks and charity “to survive,” and conditions worsened in the winter, the release stated.
The office received a tip and began looking into the company in May, according to a probable cause statement.
As of Wednesday, the attorney general’s office has arrested three executives and intends to charge them each with seven counts of aggravated labor trafficking. Additional employees will likely be arrested, the news release stated. The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not name defendants unless they have been charged.
Attorneys Skye Lazaro and Jamie Thomas, who are representing Rubicon on behalf of the Ray Quinney & Nebeker law firm, said in a statement that the company “denies any wrongdoing and has complied in good faith with all applicable laws.”
“Rubicon is cooperating with the investigation and believes it will ultimately be vindicated,” the statement read.
Attorney General Sean Reyes, in a statement, called the employer’s treatment of these workers “appalling.”
“We intend to prove the victims are innocent people who came to America using a legal immigration process to work hard, earn a living and contribute to society. But, instead,” Reyes continued, “we believe they were exploited in subhuman living and working conditions as indentured servants in a labor trafficking scheme.”
Reyes added that these arrests prove “how broadly this type of crime plagues Utah” and why he says he has prioritized combating human trafficking while in office.
The attorney general has recently come under scrutiny for his decadelong friendship with Tim Ballard, founder of the anti-child-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad, including Reyes’ participation in OUR operations, promoting the nonprofit, appearing with Ballard and receiving a producer credit in “Sound of Freedom,” a movie based in part on Ballard’s work.
Ballard was ousted from the nonprofit last summer after allegations of sexual misconduct. He is now facing multiple lawsuits, and Lindon police are criminally investigating him for sexual abuse. Ballard has denied the allegations.