Tree farm pays to end harassment suit
Several other businesses settle labor disputes
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
An Oregon Christmas tree company has agreed to pay two farmworkers $110,000 to settle a lawsuit over alleged male-on-male sexual harassment.
Holiday Specialtrees of Molalla, Ore., must also provide its employees with twice-yearly sexual harassment training and overhaul how it responds to complaints as part of the deal with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"I would underscore that in settling this matter, my client is admitting to no liability," said Tim Bernasek, the tree farm's attorney. "Sometimes in business matters it's the best decision to put the matter behind them rather than continue with costly and time-consuming litigation."
The EEOC, a federal labor regulatory agency, initially brought the complaint against the tree farm about one year ago in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore.
The lawsuit claimed supervisors at the company discriminated against the two male farmworkers due to their Mixtecan language and culture.
The complaint alleged the supervisors exposed themselves to the farmworkers, touched them inappropriately and made offensive comments, among other charges.
According to the agency, the company violated federal labor law by failing to offer procedures for reporting sexual harassment, subjecting the workers to a hostile work environment.
Holiday Specialtrees denied the accusations and responded that the two farmworkers had never complained about such conduct.
The company first learned about the allegations in a letter sent by their attorneys, according to a court document filed by the farm.
After meeting with their attorneys, Holiday Specialtrees managers thought the matter was resolved, the filing said.
When the farmworkers later complained about an offensive comment, the company "conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence to support (the farmworkers') allegations," according to the document.
Holiday Specialtrees is one of several agri-business companies in the West to settle labor lawsuits with the EEOC this year.
In March, the agency announced that South Basin Packing, a potato and onion packing firm in Umatilla, Ore., agreed to pay a worker $80,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit.
In April, Willamette Tree Wholesale, a nursery in Molalla, agreed to pay $150,000 to several workers to settle a sexual harassment complaint brought by EEOC.
That same month, the agency said that Adam Bros. Farming Co. of Santa Maria, Calif., settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed on behalf of a female vegetable packer for $27,500.
In May, the Fisher Nut Co., an almond processor in Modesto, Calif., also settled a lawsuit with the agency over alleged retaliation against workers for $150,000.