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EEOC settles bias case with troubled Iowa egg farm

Published on May 4, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on May 4, 2012 9:29AM


Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- Two female workers at a notorious Iowa egg farm who claimed they were sexually harassed by a supervisor will receive compensation under a settlement reached on their behalf by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, attorneys said Thursday.

EEOC attorney Jean Kamp said that the principles of a settlement with Quality Egg, LLC were reached this week following negotiations in Sioux City, and the details will be finalized within 30 days. She said the deal will include unspecified payments to the two employees and a consent decree designed to prevent future sexual harassment, although its impact could be limited since the farm is now under new management.

Quality Egg was part of the empire owned by disgraced egg mogul Jack DeCoster and operated by his son, Peter. It did business at locations in Wright County in northern Iowa and was part of the operation linked to the nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands in 2010 and prompted inspectors to discover filthy conditions inside plants where hens laid millions of eggs each week.

Facing a wave of lawsuits and backlash from customers, the DeCosters announced last year they had given up control of their egg operations in Iowa. Centrum Valley Farms of Alden is leasing the operations with an option to purchase and has pledged to fix the food safety, environmental and labor problems that hampered DeCoster's network of companies.

EEOC sued Quality Egg in December after two female employees alleged they were groped and subjected to other sexual advances and comments by a manager in 2009. The lawsuit claimed an unspecified class of female employees was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and that Quality Egg did not take appropriate action to stop the harassment after being notified of it.

The lawsuit sought damages for lost wages and pain and suffering on behalf of the two women, as well as a court order requiring the company to take steps to prevent future harassment.

One of the women, Diane Smith of Fort Dodge, is pleased to have the settlement reached so that she can move on with her life, said her attorney, Whitney Judkins of Des Moines. She said the manager took Smith into a break room and groped her shortly after she was hired, but Smith was able to break free and stop it. After she complained about the harassment to company officials, she was transferred to a different plant and left Quality Egg's employment months later, Judkins said.

Judkins said it was "a relief" egg operations were under new management given a history of problems when they were run by DeCoster.

In 2002, another DeCoster company agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle an EEOC lawsuit filed on behalf of several Hispanic women who alleged they were raped or sexually harassed by supervisors while working at egg plants in Wright County. The company, which did not admit wrongdoing, also agreed at the time to increase training for managers and employees and take other steps to combat harassment.

Jenny Muilenburg, Centrum Valley Farm's director of human resources, said the manager named in the EEOC complaint does not work for the company. She said Centrum Valley Farms implemented sexual harassment training for all workers after it took over the operations, and has hung posters telling employees how to report harassment in all its plants and barns.

"We're not going to put up with any sort of harassment. It was one of the things we wanted to hit and just let people know we do take this seriously," she said. "If there is a problem, you need to tell us and we'll take care of it. We're pretty proud of some of the policies and measures we've gone through to make sure our employees are safe."

A DeCoster family spokeswoman had no immediate comment, and an attorney for Quality Egg did not immediately return a phone message.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.


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