All things considered, Erasmo Ponce probably got off light. The state Attorney General announced yesterday that Ponce, who owns Tortilleria Chinantla, a corn tortilla factory in East Williamsburg, has been sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay nearly $450,000 in restitution for a laundry list of workers’ compensation violations. The factory has been under investigation since January 2011, when a young Guatemalan immigrant named Juan Baten fell into a dough mixer and had his neck broken by the machine’s gears.
Baten, 22, had worked at the factory for six years; around 2:30 a.m. on January 24, he fell into the mixer and was pronounced dead at the scene. He left behind a wife, Rosario Ramirez, and a baby daughter, Daisy Stefanie, then just seven months old.
Ponce, 57, of Whitestone, Queens, came to New York from Puebla, Mexico, in the early 90s and founded Chinantla in 1992. In the ensuing decades he became known as the “Tortilla King;” according to the company’s website, its products are distributed in 11 states throughout the Northeast. Soon after the accident, according to the Daily News, Ponce referred to Baten’s death as “a tragedy” and “human error.”
Baten’s death sparked a larger investigation into the labor practices into the bright-red factory at 975 Grand Street. Investigators from the Attorney General’s office, the Workers’ Compensation Board and the Department of Labor descended en masse, finding, among other violations, that Ponce had failed to purchase workers’ comp insurance, a felony in New York state, and had failed to pay overtime to his workers.
The factory was temporarily shut down four days after Baten’s death. But it soon resumed operation, and Ponce wasn’t arrested until March 2012, when he was charged with 26 felony counts and 23 misdemeanors. In addition, investigators from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration ultimately concluded that Baten’s death could have been prevented if a required safety guard had been in place on the machine, which it was not. The factory was fined more than $62,000 for that.
Ultimately, Ponce was only convicted of one count of a single misdemeanor charge, violation of labor laws. At the same time, Tortilleria Chinantla Inc. pleaded guilty in June 2012 to one count of violation of workers’ comp laws, one count of violation of labor laws, both misdemeanors, and one count of failure to secure payment of compensation, a felony.
Apart from his three-month jail term, Ponce will pay $447,943.11 in restitution. Three-hundred thousand goes back to the Workers’ Comp board, reimbursing them for money paid to Baten’s baby daughter. The state Department of Labor gets $138,000 to cover overtime wages owed to Ponce’s 28 employees for a six-year period from 2006 to 2011, The remaining $9,943.11 goes to unpaid unemployment insurance taxes.
On their webpage, Tortilleria Chinantla claims that the factory and Ponce himself have received “various awards for their contributions to the community.” The factory remains open.
Send story tips to the author, Anna Merlan