By DAN WHEAT
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Employers should encourage good workplace culture if they want strong, productive companies and don't want sexual harassment lawsuits and all the headaches that go with them, a federal attorney says.
Particularly on labor-intensive farms and orchards and in packing houses, employers set the tone by signaling what they will tolerate through sexual harassment policies and training, said William Tamayo, Northwest regional attorney of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
If they ignore the subject or convey an attitude of indifference they are setting themselves up for trouble, he said.
Tamayo spoke at the Washington Farm Labor Association annual Labor Conference in Yakima and noted it was the first time a farm labor association had invited him to speak. He said he was surprised because he decides whether to sue growers.
"So how do you avoid being sued by me? It's a collective responsibility. This is an issue that affects your workforce," he said.
Tamayo gave several examples of large cases in the last couple of decades where companies have paid millions of dollars in sexual harassment settlements. Cases involved rapes and threats of termination, deportation and death.
"A common thread in egregious cases is total neglect. Out of sight and out of mind. In one of our cases an employer on the witness stand said, 'We don't have policies. These are just farmworkers. Oh, I mean we're just a family farm,'" Tamayo said.
No policy, no training, no consequences enables the predator, he said.
Later, Tamayo said an EEOC lawsuit against Evans Fruit Co., Cowiche, remains in court. He said there are less than 10 active court cases in Washington and Oregon but more in the works.
Sexual harassment cases are about 25 percent of the EEOC's national docket and 30 to 35 percent of its Northwest District docket, he said.