Lawsuit: Yakima tree fruit business ignored ‘egregious’ sexual harassment against farmworker

Warning: This article includes descriptions of sexual harassment and stalking
yakima orchard

YAKIMA, Wash. — Yakima-based tree fruit business Chief Orchards is being sued over claims its supervisors ignored reports of “egregious sexual harassment” against a Latina agricultural worker for over a year — until she felt forced to quit her job.

According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employee Kristian Gonzalez reported unwanted sexual advances and stalking by a male coworker multiple times to her crew boss starting in July 2017.

“On a daily basis, he would make comments about her body and her underwear, tell other workers that she was going to be ‘his,’ and touched her without her permission,” an EEOC news release said.

Gonzalez began working in 2015 as a general laborer at Chief Orchards Services, LLC, which employs mostly seasonal agricultural workers and provides fruit-picking services to five orchards owned by its own corporate shareholders.

EEOC officials said Gonzalez took steps to avoid any contact with the co-worker, but when she reported further incidents to the foreman in November 2017, the sexual harassment continued without action or intervention by her supervisors.

“Chief Orchards failed to address the problem—in fact, after Gonzalez spoke up, her co-worker escalated his harassment,” the release said.

When Gonzalez spoke to the company’s foreman again at the end of 2017, he reportedly told her to just “hold on for a couple more weeks” until the end of the picking season.

According to the lawsuit, Gonzalez continued to be subjected to offensive sexual comments, unwanted touching and grabbing, and stalking behavior on a daily basis into 2018 and her coworker’s behavior became more aggressive.

The man reportedly followed Gonzalez out to the isolated porta-potties and shook the structure when she was inside, accused her of being a prostitute when he saw her talking to another male coworker and forcibly tried to hug her.

“He grabbed her and groped her in a manner that left red marks on her arms and shoulder and which she immediately reported to [the Chief Orchards] crew boss,” the lawsuit said. “Out of concern for her own safety, Gonzalez was forced to quit her job in September 2018.”

EEOC officials said the alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to investigate and take steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington after attempts to reach a pre-litigation settlement were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit asks the court for lost wages, monetary damages  — including compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages, and injunctive relief — and training in both Spanish and English on combatting sexual harassment in the workplace.

“When an employer permits sexual harassment to render the workplace so intolerable that an employee has no choice but to quit, it makes employees feel unsafe and leads to lower productivity,” said Nancy Sienko, acting district director for the EEOC’s San Francisco District, which includes Washington State. “It is also against the law, and the EEOC will hold employers accountable.”

EEOC Senior Trial Attorney May Che said the organization has seen how farmworkers — often immigrant women working in isolated areas — are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.

“The EEOC has made a priority of defending the civil rights of vulnerable workers and will seek the full extent of legal relief for Ms. Gonzalez,” Che said.

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