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PRESS RELEASE
4-21-11

Oregon Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit Over Sexual Harassment And Retaliation

Federal Agency Obtains $150,000 for Family of Latino Farmworkers

PORTLAND , Ore. – Willamette Tree Wholesale, Inc. has agreed to pay $150,000 to four Latino farmworkers to resolve a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced today.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, two sisters who worked at Willamette Tree’s Molalla, Ore., farm faced extreme sexual harassment. One was taken to remote areas of the farm by a supervisor, coerced with pruning shears, threatened with termination and bodily harm and sexually assaulted repeatedly over several months. When informed by a coworker of the situation, Willamette Tree failed to investigate or respond. Ultimately, the woman was fired when she refused her supervisor’s demands, according to the EEOC.

The other sister faced graphic sexual comments, propositions and groping by the same supervisor as well as a crew leader. The EEOC’s lawsuit alleged that instead of taking appropriate action when she and her husband reported the harassment, Willamette Tree retaliated by terminating the woman, her husband and another close relative who also worked there.

Willamette Tree had moved to dismiss the first sister’s claims, arguing she failed to file an EEOC charge of discrimination within the 300-day time limit prescribed by law. The court ruled that evidence of psychological damage to the woman due to the sexual assaults she suffered – including post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, suicidal ideation, social isolation and panic attacks –justified a later filing of the discrimination charge.

“The judge granted ‘equitable tolling’ – basically allowing this woman extra time to file her EEOC charge,” said EEOC San Francisco District Office Regional Attorney William Tamayo. “This is a significant ruling that recognizes the degree of trauma she suffered from the attacks as well as the threats to kill her and her family.”

Sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about it violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit (EEOC, et. al. v. Willamette Tree Wholesale, Inc., No. CV-09-690-PK, in U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon) only after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

Under the consent decree filed with the federal court, Willamette Tree agreed to pay $150,000 to the four workers and to provide anti-discrimination training for its managers, supervisors and employees. The company will also establish policies and procedures to address discrimination issues, report to the EEOC concerning any future discrimination complaints, and allow EEOC to monitor the work site for the next five years.

The first sister, a 40-year-old mother of five children, commented, “I’m not the same person nowadays. This experience left me destroyed inside.” She and the other workers were represented in the lawsuit by the Oregon Law Center’s Project Against Workplace Sexual Assault of Indigenous Farmworkers,

Mavel Morales, their lawyer from the Oregon Law Center, said, “Our clients suffered an intolerable situation, when all they wanted was to earn a paycheck to support their families. It took enormous courage for them to come forward, and when they did speak out to management, their complaint fell on deaf ears, and eventually cost them their jobs. With this settlement, we hope that their voices will encourage other farmworkers to stand up for their right to work free of sexual harassment and fears of retaliation.”

EEOC San Francisco District Director Michael Baldonado added, “This case reveals the extraordinary pressures these women faced to stay silent and submit to terrible violations out of fear for their own jobs and the livelihood of family members, as well as for their family’s physical safety. We hope that this case sends a message to employers to beware abuses of supervisory power, particularly when this work force is so vulnerable to predatory sexual harassment. ”

Tamayo noted the abundance of sexual harassment cases involving immigrant workers. He cited EEOC lawsuits against AllStar Fitness in Seattle, alleging that a Latina janitor was raped multiple times; Evans Fruit Company in Eastern Washington, charging sexual harassment of several Latina workers; Schiemer Farms of Nyassa, Ore., in which the employer paid $14,500 to two farmworker women who alleged being fired immediately after reporting sexual harassment on their first day of work; Frenchman Hills Vineyard in Othello, Wash., which paid $33,000 to a Latina worker sexually abused by a manager; Woodburn, Ore.-based Wilcox Farms, resulting in a $260,000 settlement in a sexual harassment case jointly prosecuted with the Oregon Law Center that involved a physical sexual assault; and Coalinga, Calif.-based Harris Farms, resulting in a $1,000,000 jury verdict for a farmworker who was repeatedly raped by a supervisor.

The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.