By DAN WHEAT
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has targeted the agricultural industry under the Obama administration, says a leading labor attorney from Portland.
Education rather than enforcement was the agency's focus during the Bush administration, with enforcement usually reserved for big box stores, said Tim Bernasek, a partner in Dunn Carney and former general counsel of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
But the focus has shifted to enforcement with a real emphasis on agriculture in the Obama years, Bernasek said.
The EEOC mission is to promote equality of opportunity in the workplace and enforce federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination.
The agency's funding increased $23 million in 2010 with 110 new investigators hired that year and 155 new investigators hired the previous year, he said. The number of agency attorneys to prosecute cases also increased, he said.
"Any time they settle a case, they issue a press release. They've shifted from the big guys to medium-size folks. No doubt there is a real target on the agricultural industry. The perception EEOC has of our industry shows in their press releases," Bernasek said.
The press releases accuse agricultural firms of making sexual harassment a condition of employment and say things like that they hope their action stops predatory behavior, he said.
The agency issued nearly 400 press releases last year announcing lawsuits it had filed or settled, according to the EEOC website.
"I've got to tell you folks, I don't know that we have persistent problems but the EEOC thinks that and has targeted our industry," Bernasek told a Washington Farm Labor Association conference at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
The agency uses Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act for sexual harassment suits and even same-sex sexual harassment suits, he said.
The EEOC used to issue findings and rely on private parties to file lawsuits, but now it files more suits, he said.
"They don't always tell you that you have a right to have your attorney there. Do that. Have them there," he said. But employers are not entitled to be present when the EEOC talks to employees, he said.
The best thing a company can do to defend itself is to have a "no tolerance" policy for discrimination and enforce it, Bernasek said.
"If you don't enforce it, it's better not to have it," he said.
There has to be clear reporting procedure that goes beyond reporting to a supervisor, he said. There has to be separate training of employees and supervisors and proper investigation of complaints with documentation, he said.