Sexual abuse cases loom

U.S. Supreme Court

Farmers advised to establish policies, investigate incidents

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

A top federal labor attorney in the Northwest says the relationship between supervisors and farmworkers makes agriculture susceptible to problems with sexual harassment.

"When the balance of power is so out of whack, that allows conditions for abuse to happen," said William Tamayo, regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Capital Press spoke with Tamayo after the EEOC filed three lawsuits against onion, fruit and egg producers in Oregon and Washington.

The complaints are the latest litigation against West Coast farms by the agency, which has racked up nearly $800,000 in settlements from agricultural companies in the region during the past two years.

The EEOC's pursuit of sexual harassment cases against farms in the region springs from a landmark $1.85 million settlement in 1999 between the agency and the Tanimura & Antle lettuce company in California.

After that case, other farm workers and advocates approached the agency with similar complaints, he said. "They came to me."

Tamayo said he had an epiphany about the problem while visiting Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Virginia.

In those days, Jefferson could simply have any woman slave at the plantation, he said. Now, a "harasser" must intimidate victims to prevent them from accessing the legal system.

"That's how he maintains the power," Tamayo said.

A Northwest farm workers union -- Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noreste, or PCUN -- sees sexual harassment as a "really big issue" in the region, said Ramon Ramirez, its president.

"Women are being harassed, are being asked for sexual favors and are literally being raped on farms," he said.

Sexual harassment is more prevalent in agriculture than other industries because of the unique control supervisors have over women, Ramirez said. It's also taboo to speak about the topic in the Latino community, he said.

"We come from a very male-dominated culture. Machismo is big in our community," he said. "There is a lot of fear among women."

The issue is probably going to continue growing in prominence in agriculture, so farmers should pay attention, Ramirez said. "When women realize they have rights, they are going to start complaining."

Labor experts working on behalf of farmers paint a more nuanced picture. While they generally don't believe sexual harassment is quite as frequent or severe, they also advise growers to be vigilant.

The EEOC thinks farmworkers are disadvantaged and thus more vulnerable to abuse, prompting the agency to pursue enforcement, said Frank Gasperini, executive director of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

"They look for people who are more likely to be exploited," he said.

Some farmworkers and advocates also perceive sexual harassment litigation to be a "moneymaker," said Roy Mosqueda, a labor consultant with Farm Employers Labor Service. "I think money has a big part to play in it."

Regardless of the motivation for such cases, experts say farmers should prepare for the eventuality that they will become the target of such allegations.

"They're just that prevalent," said Tim Bernasek, an attorney specializing in agricultural labor. "It's a matter of when, not if, you will."

Growers must develop procedures for dealing with sexual harassment complaints and clearly convey that information to supervisors and employees, experts say.

Every complaint should be thoroughly investigated and the farmer must take appropriate action if a violation of company policy has occurred, they say.

"It really behooves the employer to be proactive," said Rick Rossein, a law professor specializing in sexual harassment at the City University of New York.

Sorting out the truth of such allegations can be complicated, as the issue can be clouded by rumors and personal tensions between workers, experts say.

"It's not easy for someone who's not a trained investigator," Rossein said.

If a farmer encounters a "he-said-she-said" situation with no witnesses, he must determine whether the complainant is credible and document those conclusions in writing, Tamayo said.

Growers must seek out other possible victims who may be able to corroborate the experience, he said.

However, gossip may add fire to allegations that aren't substantiated, as can jealousy from suspicious romantic partners, Mosqueda said. "That can also lead to problems."

Sexual harassment claims often emanate from romantic relationships among workers that have gone sour, said Roberta Gruber, human resources consultant for the Oregon Farm Bureau. "It becomes an issue at the farm."

As treacherous as such terrain may be, farmers must traverse it to reduce their liability in the event of a lawsuit, Bernasek said. "You can't just throw up your hands and say this is something I don't want to deal with."

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