Feds Knew of Workplace Hazards Years Before Raiding Tortilla Plant

While investigating a Houston Heights tortilla factory in 2012 for employing undocumented workers, federal Homeland Security investigators learned of a disturbing story: A confidential informant at the factory witnessed the plant's owners pay off an employee, Morena Del Carmen, who had lost parts of three fingers on the job, to persuade her not to call the cops.

Yet only in June — ten months after ICE agents arrested the owners of La Espiga de Oro for immigration violations and detained several employees as witnesses — did the Department of Labor check the factory for occupational safety hazards. The reason: Homeland Security agents never shared their notes with their colleagues in OSHA.

That failure — which could have been avoided with a single phone call or email — has left immigrant labor activists baffled. 

“How it was possible there was no communication between these agencies regarding this case?” Marta Ojeda, executive director of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center told the Houston Press. 

Messages to Department of Homeland Security offices in Houston and Washington, D.C. were not returned.

When OSHA investigators finally peeked inside the tortilla plant in late June, which is tucked next to single-family homes in the largely residential neighborhood, they found 25 safety violations. The infractions include faulty wiring, uncovered fan blades, a fire hazard and cutting tools without safety guards.

How many other employees were injured at La Espiga de Oro between Del Carmen's accident and the OSHA probe is unclear. One of the citations is for the company's failure to keep a record of on-the-job accidents, as required by law.

Court papers, filed in January when the government brought charges against La Espiga owners Alfredo Lira and Lydia Botello-Lira, and supervisors Lydia Lira and Robert Guerra, includes reports from informants who said the company knowingly hired undocumented workers and encouraged them to get fake working papers.

One informant, the complaint states, witnessed a meeting between Alfredo Lira and Del Carmen, where Lira gave Del Carmen money after she agreed to sign a nondisclosure agreement. After he was arrested, Lira told agents he paid Del Carmen $30,000. While searching the factory, Homeland Security agents also seized paperwork from Memorial Hermann Hospital documenting the "traumatic amputation of three fingers" of a La Espiga employee Rosa Cartajena, the pseudonym Del Carmen worked under.

Department of Labor investigators in Houston learned about Del Carmen's accident. But not until four years after their counterparts in Homeland Security knew. 

Steve Devine, the OSHA assistant director for Houston's northern office, said he received a complaint in June — he wouldn't say from whom — which prompted him to open an investigation. Devine said the source mentioned an employee who had lost several fingers and other safety concerns.

Devine sent his compliance officers, who inspect about 400 East Texas businesses a year, to investigate the tortilla factory. That's when they found the 25 violations and wrote La Espiga $106,000 in fines.

Devine said officials at other federal agencies — the EPA, for example — will sometimes notify OSHA if they encounter possible workplace hazards at the businesses they regulate. But he said no one from the Department of Homeland Security ever contacted OSHA about the amputation incident at La Espiga. Asked if he would have sent investigators to La Espiga if OSHA had learned of Del Carmen's accident back in 2012,  Devine said it would depend on how much manpower he had in his office.

“An amputation we would normally go out on,” Devine said.

Ojeda, from the worker center, said she has complained to Department of Labor higher-ups during trips to Washington, D.C. about the lack of cooperation between federal agencies. After the raid that netted the factory's owners, she said employees of La Espiga de Oro told Homeland Security agents about unsafe conditions there.

“I think on the one hand they were concerned, but were saying it's not their job,” Ojeda said.

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Zach Despart is the managing editor of the Houston Press and oversees the news and music verticals.
Contact: Zach Despart