Federal agencies ramp up harassment investigations
Attorney: 'Because the agency believes it, you need to be extra vigilant'
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Three Northwest agricultural companies have been accused of sexual harassment in lawsuits filed by a federal agency that believes farmworkers are "particularly vulnerable" to such abuse.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claims that River Point Farms of Hermiston, Ore., Roy Farms of Moxee, Wash., and National Food Corp. of Everett, Wash., unlawfully violated employees' civil rights.
Capital Press was unable to reach the companies for comment.
The EEOC alleges that a supervisor at River Point Farms, an onion producer and shipper, requested sexual favors from a female employee and "publicly encouraged (her spouse) to kill her."
The agency also claims the company retaliated against the woman when she complained.
Another complaint accuses a supervisor at Roy Farms, a fruit and hop producer, of "using derogatory and sexually charged words" against male employees, threatening them with sexual assault and subjecting them to "unwanted sexual touching."
The EEOC also filed a lawsuit claiming that a supervisor at National Food Corp., an egg producer, demanded that a female employee perform sexual favors to keep her job.
The agency has in recent years filed several sexual harassment complaints against Oregon, Washington and California farm companies, some of which have settled the lawsuits.
Tim Bernasek, an attorney who has represented other farms in cases filed by the EEOC, said he doesn't know why the agriculture in the region would be the target of lawsuits since farmers generally take sexual harassment seriously.
"There has been a concerted effort to educate agricultural employers about these issues," he said.
Bernasek said the EEOC accusations in cases he defended were of questionable merit and he doesn't believe sexual harassment is a rampant problem in agriculture.
"The EEOC has made it very clear it views agriculture as particularly susceptible to these kinds of issues," he said. "It's not clear what kind of factual basis they're relying on."
Even so, the agency's focus on sexual harassment in agriculture means farmers should ensure they're taking the proper measures to potentially defend against a lawsuit, he said.
"Because the agency believes it, you need to be extra vigilant," Bernasek said.
Farms should establish policies and procedures that make clear to supervisors and employees that sexual harassment and discrimination are prohibited, he said. Workers should be reminded of these policies regularly during training.
Employees must understand the process for reporting allegations of sexual harassment, and the farm must conduct thorough investigations of complaints, Bernasek said.
The steps can't prevent lawsuits from being filed, but they can put farmers in a better position than if they have no policies in place, he said. "It's not a risk-free world, even if you make all the right moves."