A Walla Walla County blueberry farm has agreed to pay $350,000 to settle claims that it failed to stop a supervisor from sexually harassing and assaulting female farmworkers, the Washington Attorney General’s Office said Monday.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson alleged Great Columbia Berry Farms knew or should have known about misconduct by Jose Luis Contreras Ramirez between 2012 and 2019.
Ramirez was arrested Oct. 7, 2019, by the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office and charged with two counts of second-degree rape. He pleaded guilty on Nov. 2, 2020, to three counts of felony assault and was sentenced to 179 days in jail, according to court records.
Ramirez has not worked at the farm since 2019 and is barred from being rehired, according to Great Columbia’s agreement with the attorney general.
The attorney general alleges Great Columbia violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Washington Law Against Discrimination, failing to intervene and protect female farmworkers.
In a consent decree filed Monday in Walla Walla Superior Court, Great Columbia denied all allegations made by the attorney general and stated that it will not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace.
Great Columbia has always taken discrimination and harassment issues seriously and strived to be a safe workplace, Great Columbia President and CEO Steve Erickson said in a statement Tuesday.
“We were disturbed and shocked when we learned from law enforcement that an employee engaged in criminal conduct and the employee was dismissed,” he said. “Great Columbia chose to enter into the consent decree to resolve issues with the victim of the crime and move forward without engaging in adversarial litigation.”
Great Columbia must adopt policies and training approved by the attorney general’s office to prevent sexual harassment and provide phones for employees to immediately report harassment, discrimination or retaliation, according to the consent decree.
Ramirez was 44 years old and lived in Pasco at the time of his arrest in 2019, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin reported.
The Northwest Justice Project referred other allegations of misconduct involving several more woman to the attorney general’s office.
Ramirez had the authority to hire and fire, and assign work, according to the attorney general’s office.
“Companies that know or should know that powerful managers are harassing and assaulting their employees but do nothing to stop it bear responsibility,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Agricultural workers deserve to be heard, and they deserve a safe work environment free from abuse.”
Great Columbia is a 136-acre farm in Burbank, according to court records.
The $350,000 settlement will compensate several women and cover attorney fees of the state and Northwest Justice Project, according to the consent decree. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said Tuesday the entire settlement will be distributed to the women.
At least four women were affected by Ramirez’s misconduct, according to the attorney general’s office.
A complaint filed by the attorney general’s office against the farm alleges Ramirez groped female employees, made unwelcome sexual advances and on at least two occasions sexually assaulted a female employee.