Fruit Company Will Pay $330,000 To Farmworkers Who Got Fired After Reporting Sexual Abuse

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At least ten Latino farmworkers will receive $330,000 after a California-based dried fruits company agreed to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced Thursday. The EEOC filed the lawsuit on behalf of the workers, who were fired after they complained about the issues.

“Since at least 2007, two supervisors for the Madera, Calif.-based company subjected at least four Latina female farmworkers to ongoing sexual harassment in the form of sexual comments, leering, hugging, kissing, requests for dates or sex, and unwelcome physical acts,” the EEOC lawsuit alleged. Four victims — both male and female — and other farmworkers reported the harassment “on several different occasions,” but the company didn’t “take immediate corrective action to properly handle the situation, as required by federal law.” The EEOC lawsuit charged that workers who made the abuse allegations weren’t rehired after Zoria Farms sold the company to Z Foods.

“The agricultural industry in particular needs to recognize the susceptibility of its workforce to sexual harassment and make protecting workers a priority,” Anna Park, regional attorney for the EEOC in Los Angeles, told KQED. The publication also reported, “The five-year consent decree signed this week not only provides monetary relief to the 10 farmworkers, but the company also agreed to change its policies and practices should it decide to re-open — including a centralized tracking system for complaints of discrimination and retaliation.”

It’s unclear whether these individuals were immigrant workers. However, this is just the latest of many EEOC sexual assault and retaliation settlements that employers have paid out to vulnerable farmworkers over the years.

An EEOC press release in 2011 detailed other settlements including: “Schiemer Farms of Nyassa, Ore., in which the employer paid $14,500 to two farmworker women who alleged being fired immediately after reporting sexual harassment on their first day of work; Frenchman Hills Vineyard in Othello, Wash., which paid $33,000 to a Latina worker sexually abused by a manager; Woodburn, Ore.-based Wilcox Farms, resulting in a $260,000 settlement in a sexual harassment case jointly prosecuted with the Oregon Law Center that involved a physical sexual assault; and Coalinga, Calif.-based Harris Farms, resulting in a $1,000,000 jury verdict for a farmworker who was repeatedly raped by a supervisor.”

Willamette Tree Wholesale, Inc., a tree farm, paid $150,000 to four Latino farmworkers after two sisters were sexually assaulted repeatedly over several months in 2011. And 14 workers at Evans Fruit Company in Washington “testified they had been groped, assaulted or verbally harassed by a foreman or crew leader,” The Center for Investigative Reporting reported.

Sexual harassment and assault are commonplace in the agricultural industry, a field that has about 560,000 female farm workers in the United States. Between 1998 and 2013, farmworkers filed 1,106 sexual harassment complaints with the EEOC against agricultural-related industries. “The allegations range from verbal harassment to rape and include supervisors accused of preying on multiple victims. Of these, the federal commission has filed lawsuits in 41 cases. More than 150 farm workers in these cases said they were sexually assaulted, harassed or abused. In more than 80 percent of these cases, court records show, workers who complained to management said they were either demoted, fired or subjected to further abuse,” reported the Center for Investigative Reporting.

“Hundreds of female agricultural workers have complained to the federal government about being raped and assaulted, verbally and physically harassed on the job, while law enforcement has done almost nothing to prosecute potential crimes,” The Center for Investigative Reporting piece continued. “In virtually all of the cases reviewed, the alleged perpetrators held positions of power over the women. Despite the accusations, these supervisors have remained on the job for years without fear of arrest.”

Undocumented workers are more vulnerable in such cases because they can be — and in many cases have been — threatened with deportation. Sometimes, because of their legal status, these workers don’t know that they have rights.

But there is some silver lining. California enacted a law last year that requires all agricultural employers to mandate two hours of sexual harassment training every two years for their farm supervisors. Previously, only employers with more than 50 employees had to undergo training. The law also allows the state to “revoke the license of a contractor who has harassed an employee. Labor contractors also could be stripped of their license if they hire a supervisor who has engaged in sexual harassment in the past three years,” PBS reported last year.