OLYMPIA — A lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, racist remarks and discriminatory behavior by Dan Fazio, director of the farm labor association WAFLA, and by WAFLA is pending in federal court.
And memos to WAFLA board members purportedly from anonymous staff allege sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation against staff who complain and poor management and illegal activities by several top staff resulting in dysfunction and high employee turnover.
Fazio told Capital Press he could not comment.
“WAFLA vigorously disputes the allegations made by a former employee and looks forward to defending itself in court,” said Kim Bresler, WAFLA’s membership and communications director. Allegations of illegal activity in the memos are “strongly and vehemently denied,” Bresler said.
Several prospective WAFLA board members decided not to come on the board because of the first memo, but the organization is functioning and is not concerned about losing clients, she said.
First known as the Washington Farm Labor Association, WAFLA, headquartered in Lacey next to Olympia, was expanded by Fazio several years ago into the Northwest’s main provider of thousands of H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers, mainly to the tree fruit industry.
The lawsuit was filed in early June by Dawn Dobbins, a former WAFLA employee, in Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia and was moved later that month to U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
The lawsuit says Dobbins didn’t know, when she was hired by WAFLA as an administrative assistant, that “Fazio has a long history of unlawful, inappropriate and discriminatory behavior.”
It was “especially egregious considering that WAFLA provides human resources services to agricultural employers and that Fazio holds himself out as an expert on the subject of employment practices,” the lawsuit states.
“Fazio has a pattern and practice of treating female employees with contempt and ridicule,” the lawsuit states. It further said Fazio made racist comments, including that people with darker skin should be doing all the work, that Mexicans are fat and have diabetes because they drink Coke and that an Asian account executive would do a good job for a customer because he’s Asian and therefore smart.
Dobbins was promoted to human resources and office manager in October 2016.
Fazio would sit next to her, instead of across a table, in closed-door meetings and would “cause his legs to touch hers in a sexual and inappropriate manner” and did it in a way others could not see, the lawsuit states.
“Fazio repeatedly stared at Dobbins’ breasts in a sexual manner instead of looking her in the eyes,” the lawsuit states.
When Dobbins stood up for a woman employee that Fazio didn’t like, he demoted her from human resources manager to entry-level account executive, the lawsuit states.
Dobbins filed a formal complaint, pursuant to company procedures, on Jan. 12, 2017, and was informed on Jan. 20 that it would not be investigated for another two months. Thereafter, she was subjected to humiliation and ridicule, the lawsuit states.
George Zanatta, WAFLA chief operating officer, delivered findings on the complaint months after Dobbins submitted it and while admitting some of Fazio’s behaviors were inexcusable attempted to discredit Dobbins and called upon her to apologize to Fazio for alleged inaccurate statements, the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit the findings recommended Dobbins be reassigned and given corrective measures and did not recommend any discipline for Fazio other than for him to apologize to Dobbins.
The findings did not consider allegations of offensive and demeaning conduct by Fazio in the separate and prior litigation of Mendoza v. WAFLA that have been known to WAFLA for years, the lawsuit states. WAFLA continues to “tolerate illegal, discriminatory behavior from Fazio,” the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, WAFLA and Fazio created a discriminatory and hostile workplace for Dobbins, she filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and received a right-to-sue letter and on May 31, 2017, WAFLA fired Dobbins. Dobbins refused to sign a separation agreement waiving her legal rights. The lawsuit alleges violation of state discrimination law, management negligence, unlawful termination and seeks damages to be proven at trial. A jury trial is set for Nov. 26, 2018, in U.S. District Court.
A June 14, 2017, memo to the WAFLA board purportedly from “concerned WAFLA staff, names Fazio and two other top WAFLA officers as “engaging in illegal and poor management practices.” The memo alleges sexual harassment, discrimination against women, minorities and younger and older staff and disparate treatment and pay. It alleges Fazio tampered with an internal investigation about sexual harassment.
High staff turnover resulted in not enough qualified people to keep the H-2A program running leading to fear WAFLA would lose clients, the memo states.
“If these issues are not resolved in the near future, a large group of prior and current staff will likely seek legal action against WAFLA and the executives in this letter and may release this letter to the press,” the memo states.
A June 28, 2017, memo, again purportedly from “concerned staff,” alleges Fazio used H-2A visas for H-2B clients, that it was a common practice at WAFLA to forge employers’ signatures. Further, that WAFLA issued incorrect advertisements, gave incorrect tax advice, gave legal advice on how to fire H-2A employees and get them off workers compensation prior to them returning to Mexico, and advice on how to falsify dates of need and get around regulations.
The memo alleges Fazio instructed staff to delete emails that he did not want to be discoverable and alleges numerous other questionable actions.
The memo says a majority of WAFLA board members resigned shortly after getting a letter regarding illegal behavior of Fazio and two other WAFLA executives. Fazio told staff he would recruit new board members and it is apparent he controls WAFLA not the board nor members, the memo states.
Bresler said one board member quit for unknown reasons, another for personal reasons and that two prospective board members decided not to join after reading the first memo.