Major Washington Apple Grower Sued for Sexual Harassment

One of the largest apple producers in the United States has been placed under a temporary restraining order (TRO) filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency announced Friday. The federal agency said it was motivated by the immediate danger of "substantial and irreparable injury" to class members and potential witnesses in EEOC's sexual harassment suit against Evans Fruit Company, which was filed at the same time as the agency's TRO request.

Based in Cowiche, Wash., Evans Fruit operates 11 ranches, totaling more than 7,000 acres, including apple orchards and three production facilities. The company employs 1,200 - 1,300 seasonal employees in addition to regular staff.

U.S. District Court Judge Lonny R. Suko has ordered the company and all its agents to stop all retaliatory activity against those involved and those who may become involved in the lawsuit. Under the terms of the TRO, Evans Fruit supervisors -- including Juan Marin, Alberto "Camello" Sanchez, and Simon Ramirez -- must avoid further contact with class members and potential witnesses. They must immediately cease any attempts to intimidate or tamper with current or potential witnesses, such as paying to influence testimony, the agency said.

EEOC filed suit on behalf of three individuals and a class of women, alleging sexual harassment by the ranch manager and crew leaders at the grower's Sunnyside ranch. According to the agency's investigation, these supervisors often singled out women for sexual advances, with work assignments that isolated them from friends and family members. The women were forced to quit, EEOC charged, in order to get away from the ongoing sexual comments, propositioning, and physical groping.

One of the workers who filed charges with EEOC described how the ranch manager refused to let her work on the same crew as her 15-year-old daughter, whom he then targeted with unwelcome verbal and physical sexual attention. She said, “My daughter was just a child. That man should not have been touching her or whispering in her ear. There weren’t any other jobs in town, but we could not work there any longer. I do not want what happened to my daughter to happen to anyone else."

Sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After first attempting to reach a settlement out of court through conciliation, EEOC filed the lawsuit (Case No. 10CV-03033 LRS) and applied for the TRO in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington. The agency seeks monetary damages on behalf of the women, training on anti-discrimination laws, posting of anti-discrimination notices at the work site, and other injunctive relief.

EEOC Regional Attorney William Tamayo said, "Filing for a temporary restraining order is not a common action for us. But in this case, we saw an urgent need to do all in our power to protect the farmworkers who participate in this case. We hope this lawsuit and the power of the court's restraining order will encourage workers to be able to step forward with information about the discrimination with the knowledge that the law protects them and their jobs." Tamayo urged workers who experienced sexual harassment at Evans Fruit to contact EEOC to determine if they qualify to be part of the class: contact Carmen Flores at (832) 364-4190, Debra Smith at (415) 238-3141, or May Che at (206) 498-9711. (All speak Spanish.)

"Our investigation revealed that sexual harassment at Evans Fruit was so widespread and accepted that it became a condition of employment for these women," said Luis Lucero, director of EEOC's Seattle Field Office. "The EEOC has filed and resolved similar lawsuits in the Pacific Northwest last year. We hope this case will alert employers in this industry to stop predatory sexual behavior and abuses of supervisory power."

Last June, EEOC filed a lawsuit against Willamette Tree Wholesale Inc. located in Molalla, Ore., alleging that Latina workers there were sexually harassed, threatened, and in one case, repeatedly raped. In October, EEOC sued Eastern Washington winery La Pianta L.C.C., which does business as Frenchman Hills Vineyard, on behalf of a Latina worker targeted for escalating sexual attention by the vineyard manager at its facility in Othello, Wash. In the fall of 2009, EEOC resolved two separate sexual harassment and retaliation suits: Wilcox Farms, which operates dairy and egg production facilities in Oregon and Washington, agreed to pay $260,000 to a female worker at its Aurora, Ore., facility, and Schiemer Farms of Nyassa, Ore., paid $14,500 to two farmworker women who alleged being fired immediately after reporting sexual harassment on their first day of work.

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