Farm workers at risk: EEOC wins NW harassment settlements

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sues a series of Northwest employers for letting foremen harass and assault immigrant workers. Civil rights attorneys say abused farm and janitorial workers are just starting to come forward.

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William Tamayo of the EEOC

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sues a series of Northwest employers for letting foremen harass and assault immigrant workers. Civil rights attorneys say abused farm and janitorial workers are just starting to come forward.

The rapes began the week the woman started working at Willamette Tree Wholesale in Molalla, Oregon. They continued, once or twice a week, through the four months she lasted there. According to evidence in a lawsuit brought against the tree farm by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the woman, her sister and brother, and the sister's husband, a supervisor used pruning shears to coerce her. He threatened to kill her and her family, including family members still back in Mexico, if she told anyone, and said he would track her down even if she quit. A coworker reported to the tree farm’s manager that the supervisor had assaulted the woman, to no avail. The supervisor then told the woman she was fired for blabbing to the coworker. She begged to keep her job, in order to support her four children. Finally she could take it no more and refused his advances. The accounts vary as to whether he fired her on the spot or she exclaimed that she quit. For months afterward he called her, repeating his threats.

The same lawsuit contended that another supervisor at Willamette Tree made lewd jokes about the raped woman's sister and groped her breast. When her brother told him to knock it off, he was fired too. The same supervisor subsequently attacked the sister's husband with shears; the husband fended him off with a shovel. They were both fired for fighting.

Willamette has continued to deny that any harassment occurred. But it agreed earlier this year to pay a $150,000 settlement and establish policies and procedures to address discrimination, report any future complaints to the EEOC, and let the EEOC monitor its workplace for five years — typical terms in such cases.

Until recently, say government and nonprofit attorneys who represent farmworkers, lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and assault like this were virtually unknown in the Northwest’s huge agricultural industry, which employs more than 300,000 workers. But in recent years, says the EEOC’s San Francisco-based regional attorney William Tamayo, “the EEOC has seen an alarming rise in harassment cases involving egregious sexual assaults being committed against female workers, particularly those from immigrant communities.”

In the past three years the EEOC has brought a rash of cases against Northwest agribusinesses, ranging from Frenchman Hills Winery in Othello, Washington to the Wilcox Farms egg operation in Woodburn, Oregon, which paid a $260,000 settlement. In an ongoing case, the EEOC contends that supervisors at the Sunnyside ranch of Evans Fruit, one of the nation’s largest apple growers, not only harassed workers but deployed spies and made death threats against those who spoke to EEOC investigators. Two were so frightened they fled the state; others refused to cooperate further with federal investigators. Last October, a federal judge took the unusual step of issuing a preliminary injunction against Evans Fruit officials to prevent further intimidation and harassment.

Employers commonly settle such cases and agree to institute anti-harassment training, reporting, and monitoring. But one, Harris Farms in Coalinga, California, went to trial over charges that a foreman repeatedly raped and threatened a Latina field worker. A jury awarded the victim $1 million.

Agricultural workers aren’t the only victims; immigrants also fill the low-paid rolls of the janitorial industry. ABM Industries, a large national janitorial firm, paid $5.8 million to 21 Latina workers who were harassed and, in the case of one of them, raped by supervisors and coworkers. Closer to home, and in a case strikingly similar to the Willamette Tree incidents, the EEOC recently obtained a $150,000 settlement for a Latina janitorial worker at two Allstar Fitness clubs in Seattle. The case charged that she’d been repeatedly forced to have sex by her supervisor; again, she needed the job to support her children, as well as her mother. “When I tried to talk to top management to report what my super­visor was doing,” an EEOC release quotes her as saying, “they immediately took his side.” And when she finally said “No more,” she was fired.

But Tamayo and other attorneys who assist them say farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable to sexual coercion and assault. In part this reflects the nature of the work, and where it’s done. “In Washington in particular we have a lot crops that need to be picked by hand,” says Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Union of Washington. “Workers can be very isolated,” giving abusive foremen a free hand with no witnesses present. “A lot of the men carry guns for protection, because you’re out in the middle of nowhere.” Even in the packing plants, says Dunne, “there are very few female foremen.” Immigrant women believe such jobs are closed to them: “You can’t drive a tractor, you can’t be a foreman. They don’t know this is against the law.”

The language barrier compounds the foremen’s power. Latino and Latina workers commonly speak little English; farm owners and upper managers don’t speak Spanish. Bilingual foremen become the sole interpreters and intermediaries between the two; abused workers may have no one else they can talk to, and no awareness of their rights. “They thought even rape was something normal in the workplace,” says Blanca Rodriguez, a senior staff attorney with the Northwest Justice Project in Yakima. “There are still a lot of agricultural and low-wage workers who think this is something you have to put up with.”

Sexual abuse is one more burden in a heavy load that agricultural workers often bear: low wages, backbreaking labor in the searing sun, toxic pesticide exposures, inadequate housing and medical care, perpetual uncertainty as to whether they’ll have work or be able to stay in the country. It takes an especially daunting leap of faith or desperation for undocumented immigrants to come forward and report harassment to representatives of the same government they fear will deport them.

In fact, the EEOC does not investigate or report their immigration status; a judge in the Willamette Tree case last year ordered the employer not to inquire into claimants' immigration status (as well as their sexual history), as doing so could discourage or prejudice meritorious discrimination claims. And if the EEOC finds merit and undertakes their cases, they can stay and work under special U visas available to victims of trafficking and other criminal activity. But this too was information that did not reach the fields. Indeed, it was only in 1991 that a federal court ruled that undocumented workers, like others, are protected from harassment and other discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As it happens, Bill Tamayo, then a private civil rights attorney with California’s Asian Law Caucus, represented the plaintiff-intervenor in that case, EEOC v. Tortilleria la Mejor. Four years later he was appointed the EEOC’s regional attorney on the West Coast; since then, colleagues say, he’s been the driving force in the effort to find and protect previously neglected immigrant workers suffering harassment and abuse.

That effort has only slowly paid off. “We have always known that there was a lot of sexual harassment, especially in the agricultural industry,” says the Northwest Justice Project’s Rodriguez. “But until 2008 we did not see the cases coming in the door.” That year her agency and others launched a concerted effort at outreach, going out into agricultural communities to inform workers of their rights. They found that taking complaints in person made a big difference: “If people have been raped or severely abused, they don’t want to talk to someone they’ve never met over the phone.”

Now that word is spreading and victims are coming forward, will their employers get the message? “A lot of farmers don’t realize it till they’re hit with the bottom line and realize they’re going to be sued,” says Rodriguez. “But maybe it is making a difference to some. I hope they’re taking it more seriously.”

This article was written in partnership with the International Examiner, where an earlier version appeared. The International Examiner is a non-profit biweekly newspaper covering Asian Pacific American communities in the Northwest; information about donations and subscriptions is here.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.