WENATCHEE, Wash. — Stemilt Growers LLC and it’s wholly-owned subsidiary Stemilt Ag Services have agreed to pay a tractor driver $95,000 and implement preventive measures to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation discrimination lawsuit from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Stemilt, based in Wenatchee, is one of the state’s largest tree fruit companies. Last June, after the lawsuit was filed, a Stemilt spokesman said the company has never tolerated discrimination. He declined further comment.
According to EEOC’s lawsuit, Heidi Corona worked for Stemilt as a tractor driver for more than three years in Quincy before being transferred to a company orchard in Wenatchee, where she was the only woman tractor driver.
In her second day in the new location, her direct supervisor drove her to a remote location and made sexually explicit comments, propositioned her for sex and attempted to kiss her, the EEOC said.
Trapped in a moving vehicle and at an unfamiliar and remote location with no cell phone service, Corona, who was in her mid-30s, asked the supervisor to stop and told him she was only there to work, the EEOC said.
After the incident, the supervisor assigned Corona to pick up trash and excluded her from meetings with other tractor drivers. When she reported the harassment to upper management she was given a choice of continuing to work under the same supervisor or become a warehouse fruit sorter for lower pay, EEOC said. She took the lower-paying job.
The alleged conduct violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under which employers are required to prevent and remedy sexual harassment and are prohibited from retaliation.
EEOC said it filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court after trying to reach a settlement.
Under a consent decree, signed April 3 by U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice, Stemilt will pay Corona $95,000, some of it for lost wages and some for emotional distress, said Carmen Flores, EEOC senior trial attorney.
Corona no longer works for Stemilt, and while EEOC asked a letter of reprimand be put in the supervisor’s folder, EEOC doesn’t know if that happened, Flores said.
“We were disappointed he was still a supervisor during the case,” she said.
A Stemilt spokesman declined any comment, including whether the supervisor was disciplined.
The decree requires Stemilt to provide an anti-discrimination policy and annual training to all management and staff. The company agreed to institute complaint-handling procedures and to hold management and supervisors accountable for how they respond to complaints. In addition, Stemilt will post a notice on the case, and report annually to the EEOC for a three-year period.
Flores said Stemilt already had sexual harassment training and reporting procedures but that the decree is a fresh emphasis.
“We felt the investigation was not thorough by the company and that’s very important if you really want to address problems,” Flores said. “It’s good for the employer to be vigilant. We find companies have written policies but it seems like they are not taken seriously.”
Corona said she hopes, as a result of the settlement, that “Stemilt will listen to a woman who reports harassment and will give her support, not punishment.
“My message for other women workers is don’t be afraid, use your voice, don’t stay silent,” she said.
Nancy Sienko, director of EEOC’s Seattle office, said national attention has recently been focused on sexual harassment and that employers must show leadership and foster work atmospheres of respect.
“Corona just wanted to drive tractor, a rare position for a woman in that industry. Instead, she was forced to give up a job she loved and take a pay cut to avoid harassment, an all-too familiar pattern for workers across industries seen from #MeToo accounts,” Flores said. “We hope this settlement sends a clear message that EEOC can be a key resource in the fight to end workplace sexual harassment.”