Tennessee Woman Accuses Farm of Favoring Foreigners

A Tennessee woman has filed complaints with three government agencies alleging that a local farm discriminated against her for being an American.

Sabrina Steele, 28, says that when she applied for work at Pope's Plant Farm in Greenback, Tenn., a man she believed to be the farm's owner discouraged her from taking the job so that he could hire foreign workers instead.

Critics say the case demonstrates that changes to the government's H-2A foreign worker program will make it harder for Americans to find work.

In November 2007, Pope's Plant Farm applied to the Department of Labor for 75 foreign worker visas. In the application, the farm said its workers would work 40 hours a week for $8.65 an hour.

Steele, a mother of two elementary-school-aged children who has worked on her family farm for years, says she was looking for supplemental income when was referred to the farm by the Tennessee Careers Center in December 2007.

When she went to the farm to apply, Steele said, Mike Pope offered her a job, but he told her she'd be working 80 hours a week and would be the only English-speaking American employee besides the office workers.

Steele says in her complaint that she later learned that the jobs that were available at the farm were in connection with the H-2A application filed by Pope.

"I also learned that in the clearance order, the work offered to temporary foreign workers was for 40 hours a week," she wrote. "If the work offered to me had been the same as that offered to the temporary foreign (and apparently mostly male) workers, I would have accepted."

Steele also alleges she was discriminated against because she is a woman. She said Pope told her she would be outnumbered by men 20-to-1, and that she should consult with her husband before taking the job.

"I believe that Mr. Pope discriminated against me by offering me work that was inferior to the foreign male workers," Steele wrote in her complaint. "I believe he did this because I am a woman. I don’t think he would tell a male applicant to check with his wife and family before taking the job."

Pope's Plant Farm had no comment when contacted by FOXNews.com.

After an article was published in the Daily Times, the local newspaper, Steele was contacted by Melody Fowler-Green, a lawyer with the nonprofit Southern Migrant Legal Services, which provides legal services to migrant agricultural workers.

The group filed a complaint with the Department of Justice last week alleging that Steele was discriminated against because she is an American citizen. Steele also filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Tennessee Careers Center.

"Her allegation is that the foreign guest workers were offered terms and conditions that were more favorable than those that were offered to her, and she believed that was in an effort to dissuade her from taking the job," Fowler-Green told FOXNews.com.

Since she was applying for seasonal agricultural work, Steele was considered a migrant worker.

"What caught our attention in her situation and what led us to sink resources into her case is that we have heard anecdotally for years that U.S. workers have a hard time getting the jobs," Fowler-Green said. "There may be reasons as an employer to favor hiring guest workers, but the law states that it should be the other way around. The program was set up in a way to help prevent the displacement of U.S. workers."

The EEOC is expected to make a decision on Steele's complaint on Thursday, Fowler-Green said.

Steele told FOXNews.com that she decided to pursue the complaints after hearing that dozens of other Americans had been discriminated against when looking for local work, and after she was rejected by other employers herself.

At one farm, she said, she "was actually denied even the opportunity to fill out an application or to come in. One of them was very, very degrading to me and basically didn't like American workers and didn't have much good to say about American workers in general."

She said the slowing economy took its toll on her and her family as she continued to look for work.

"I felt like if they would have met me I could have proved to them I could have done the job, but when you're not even given that opportunity, it's very discouraging," Steele said.

Steele's lawyer said the case highlights how the Bush administration's recent changes to the H-2A foreign guest worker program — loosening regulations on recruiting American workers — hurt Americans and gave a good program a bad name.

"The evidence shows that U.S. workers were already having a hard time getting the work. It may be worse under the new regulations," Fowler-Green said.

"I think that the guest worker programs should be administered such that they protect U.S. workers. It's not just about protecting the rights of the guest workers who come here. That's an important function, not only of the law but of my office, but the program works best when it does protect U.S. workers, especially in this economy."

Steele said she supports the H-2A guest worker program when times are good.

"I don't think the programs need to be eliminated by any means. I don't have a problem with people being willing to do those jobs. I was willing to do them," she said.

"But these employers have to hire the people that apply because we need the income here. We have too many people that are losing their homes every day, and if they're willing to do the work, I think they should have the opportunity to do the work."