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An immigrant worker alleges unsanitary working conditions and low wages at a Stamford grocery store

Provided / Carla Esquivel
Trabajadoras del Hogar: Nosotras
Labor advocates demonstrate July 20, 2023, at Utuado grocery in Stamford, Connecticut.

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An immigrant advocacy group says it's filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration against a Stamford grocery store on behalf of a former worker who alleges unsanitary working conditions and low wages.

Lorenzo Moreno immigrated from Ecuador earlier this year. He said he worked for about a month at Utuado Grocery, where he was getting paid $12.15 an hour. Connecticut’s minimum wage increased to $15 in June.

Moreno said an infestation at work was affecting his health.

"I saw fleas, which itched a lot ... I couldn't stand it anymore,” Moreno said. “My legs were bleeding from the bites, and I told my co-worker to notify the owner or manager because I couldn't keep working in those conditions.”

Moreno said he advised the owner about the infestation, but that no action was taken to solve the problem. Then he developed severe allergies and was taken to the hospital by ambulance.

According to Moreno, the doctors told him the reaction was due to his exposure to bugs and rodents at work.

When Moreno tried to return to work, he said he was fired.

“I called and sent texts telling them I felt sick. But they said to me that I was no longer going to work with them,” he said.

Advocates are also demanding the store pay his medical bills related to unsanitary working conditions.

Connecticut Public made several attempts to contact Utuado Grocery for comment, including a visit to the store. A worker who answered the phone said he was not authorized to provide comments. The store owner, Jose Tineo, didn't address the former worker's allegations in a phone call.

Carla Esquivel is the founder and executive director at Trabajadoras del Hogar: Nosotras, a non-profit organization that advocates for workers' rights in the Stamford area. Her group protested outside the grocery store, demanding dignified treatment of undocumented workers.

“Our purpose is to empower people to have better living conditions and to help them know about their rights,” Esquivel said.

Debora Gonzalez, a member of Unidad Latina en Acción, an immigrant advocacy group, said her organization filed an OSHA complaint on behalf of Moreno.

Connecticut Public was not able to independently confirm if a complaint has been filed with OSHA. An OSHA official did not immediately confirm details about the complaint and asked Connecticut Public to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.

Stamford's Department of Public Health inspected the store in July after being made aware of complaints and concerns about the store. An inspector found rodent droppings and cat feces, according to an inspection report. A store employee said that stray cats were allowed inside on occasion. The store was ordered to clean up the animal waste and keep stray animals outside the establishment.

A few days later, during a follow-up inspection, the store provided a receipt indicating the space had been treated for pest control.

Virgil de la Cruz, who is on the city of Stamford's Board of Representatives, wasn't aware of the matter when contacted by Connecticut Public.

"It would be much better if the employee himself contacts me and at the same time submits a report to the health department that has jurisdiction over this type of matter," de la Cruz said.

A study by the Economic Policy Institute shows that undocumented workers, like Moreno, are more likely to be victims of workplace abuses, and substandard health and safety procedures.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration shared updated guidance from the Department of Homeland Security to provide an “expedited deferred action request process” to undocumented workers who are either victims of, or witnesses to, labor rights violations.

“That is the message we are trying to bring to the Stamford community,” Esquivel said. “Even if you don't have papers, there are laws protecting you. People should not be intimidated, nor be afraid to speak up.”

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.

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