Owner of Tortilla Factory Where Worker Died Charged With Falsifying Records

By Meredith Hoffman on March 28, 2012 12:53pm | Updated on March 28, 2012 4:44pm

BUSHWICK — A tortilla factory owner whose worker died after falling into a mixer last year has been arrested, according to court records.

Erasmo Ponce, the owner of Tortilleria Chinantla on Grand Street, was arraigned Tuesday on felony charges for falsifying business records and on misdemeanor charges for wage violations. He was released without bail and is due back in court June 12.

Ponce was arrested by the Attorney General's Office, according to an agency spokesperson.

Ponce's factory was the site where Guatemalan immigrant Juan Baten, 22, was killed when he fell into a dough mixer on Jan. 24, 2011. The factory has been cited for eight safety and health violations, prompting fines of up to $64,000. The case is still open, according to a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Six of the outstanding violations have been deemed "serious," including infractions for a lack of measures to guard against "unintended startup of machinery," an absence of training for industrial truck operators and a failure to acknowledge Baten's death on the factory's injury record.

OSHA also determined that the company knowingly neglected to guard its machines, OSHA spokesman Ted Fitzgerald said. The machine was only guarded after Baten's death, he added.

Ponce, who was back at the factory today after his arrest, according to a worker, did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Baten, who had worked at the factory since he was 16 years old, is survived by his partner Rosario Ramirez and their baby in East New York. In a conference call from her home Wednesday, Ramirez, 24, expressed relief Ponce had been arrested.

"It gives me a bit of comfort," she said of the arrest. "This man didn’t show any respect after Juan died—he only waited a couple of days to reopen the factory."

Ramirez cried that Ponce and his wife had disregarded Ramirez's pain after the death.

"Mrs. Ponce at the funeral told me that there are many women like myself and that I could find another husband," said Ramirez. "They treated me like I was just an ignorant immigrant."

Ramirez had expressed shock and dismay that the factory was still operating a year after Baten's death, when she visited the site to commemorate his loss.

"He never saw his daughter grow up," Ramirez said in Spanish on the anniversary of Baten's death.

"She was 7 months old when he died."

The non-profit advocacy group Brandworkers, which held a vigil for Baten at the factory this January and has spoken out against Ponce, applauded the arrest.

"While nothing will bring Juan Baten back to his widow and daughter, this arrest is an important step forward toward accountability in New York City's food processing industry," said Executive Director Daniel Gross in a statement, "where reckless disregard for worker health & safety is increasingly the norm."

The Attorney General's Office also linked the arrest to the enforcement of work laws in the city.

"My office is committed to vigorous enforcement of the laws protecting New York's workers," said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a statement. "We will aggressively pursue employers who violate labor laws, including criminally when appropriate."

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