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Owner of Brooklyn tortilla factory where worker died pleads guilty to labor violations

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The owner of a tortilla factory where a worker fell into a dough mixer and died has pleaded guilty to criminal charges of labor violations.

Erasmo Ponce, president of Tortilleria Chinantla located at 975 Grand Street in Williamsburg, pleaded guilty on Tuesday in Brooklyn Criminal Court to the misdemeanor charge of not paying factory employees the mandated time-and-a-half for overtime hours. He also pleaded guilty on behalf of his company to failing to secure workers’ compensation insurance for nearly a year, a felony.

The January 2011 death of 22-year-old Juan Baten, a Guatemalan immigrant worker, prompted the investigation into the company’s labor practices by the Wage and Compensation Board, who referred the case to the office of the Attorney General.

Crain’s New York reports that Ponce and Tortilleria Chinantla will pay $447,000 in restitution for workers’ compensation survivor benefits to Baten’s widow, overtime pay due to employees and unpaid workers’ compensation insurance.

Ponce will be sentenced in January 2013.

“Employers have basic, fundamental responsibilities to their employees — and our office has zero tolerance for employers who do not understand that. Minimum wage and overtime laws guarantee a baseline level of income for working people,” Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in an email to DNA Info. “Workers' compensation laws ensure that injured workers receive medical care, and that the survivors of employees killed on the job receive some funds to help sustain them in the absence of their loved one.”

In July 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued citations for eight violations of workplace safety and health standards and levied $62,400 in proposed penalties to Tortilleria Chinantla in an investigation following Baten’s death.

The New York Daily News reported that a security tape showed Baten repeatedly extended his arm into the dough mixer to aid in the mixing. It was during this activity that the mixer’s rotating blades entrapped his arm and pulled him into the mix, crushing his head and chest.

“Proper and effective machine guarding would have eliminated this hazard and prevented this young worker's death,” said Kay Gee, OSHA's area director for Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. “This was a clearly recognizable hazard that should have been addressed.”