‘We are seeking justice’: Women speak out after Sunnyside mushroom farm fired 85% of its female workers
SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — Workers are speaking out against a Sunnyside mushroom farm they claim fired the bulk of its majority-female workforce, leaving behind more than one single mom frantically searching for ways to pay the bills.
A newly-filed civil rights lawsuit claims Ostrom Mushroom Farms has systemically fired 85% of the women working for them and mostly replacing them with mostly male H-2A workers, who have fewer rights protecting them in the workplace than U.S. residents.
“Ostrom even made a Facebook post in the middle of its firing spree seeking quote ‘only males’ to apply to work at the farm,” Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Wednesday at a press conference about the lawsuit.
KAPP-KVEW reached out to Ostrom Mushroom Farms regarding the lawsuit, but did not receive a response.
In the lawsuit, Ferguson has accused the company of engaging in “calculated” discrimination against women and U.S. residents, purportedly violating state law with both their hiring and firing practices.
Samira Rosas was one of three current and former employees who shared stories about their treatment by the company at the press conference. She said she believes the company doesn’t want female employees because they often have family obligations.
“We are equal workers and it’s not fair to think of us as women that have children, that have appointments, that have to leave the work place for our children,” Rosas said. “We have a lot to contribute.”
Rosas continues to work at Ostrom Mushroom Farms despite the alleged discrimination and her own negative experiences, including reportedly facing retaliation after sharing her concerns with management alongside a group of her coworkers this summer.
“I’ve suffered blows; one of the managers hit me with a metal cart,” Rosas said. “I believe that the retaliation was due to the fact that we manifested against injustice.”
The lawsuit claims managers issued a warning to one worker they falsely accused of bringing a weapon to work and another to a worker because he couldn’t keep “dirt from falling off the broken piece of machinery he was operating.”
Another current employee, Jose Martinez, said despite good-faith efforts from their small group of employees to bring their concerns to the managers’ attention, retaliation is all they’ve received.
“This is the beginning; the fight goes on,” Martinez said. “What we want is to have a union.”
HAPPENING NOW: @AGOWA has filed a lawsuit against Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Sunnyside for alleged violations of discrimination laws, saying they “had a clear goal” to get rid of female farmworkers and replace them with male H-2A workers.
— Emily Goodell (@GoodellEmily) August 17, 2022
Former employee Maria Toscano said she left after a little over a year working at the Sunnyside facility because she couldn’t take the stress of working in that kind of environment anymore.
“It’s extremely stressful to know that you have a family that you’re a single mother and that you have no right to have a job like that, for the simple fact that you’re a woman,” Toscano said. “We are here because we are seeking justice.”
Ferguson said the issue began last year, when Ostrom Mushroom Farms applied to receive workers through the federal H-2A program and was denied because the program is designed for employers who are facing a local labor shortage
“But Ostrom was not facing a shortage of workers at all,” Ferguson said. “There were Washington workers willing to work for Ostrom in the Yakima area.”
However, Ferguson said the company was set on having H-2A workers, who have fewer workplace protections under the law and whose employer can affect not just their livelihood, but their ability to stay in the U.S.
“H-2A workers are brought in from other countries to work for a specific employer, meaning if they leave the employer, they must also leave the country,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said the company needed to show it was facing a shortage of domestic workers willing to working at the Sunnyside facility so they allegedly started firing employees who were U.S. residents and discouraging or outright rejecting others who applied.
“My team uncovered evidence that Ostrom rejected more than a dozen applications from qualified U.S.-based workers with agricultural work experience,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said they manufactured reasons to suspend workers without pay in the hopes that they’d quit or fired them outright, allegedly for not meeting a new quota for pounds of mushrooms picked per hour.
“[They] began disciplining workers and pickers who did not meet the new rate with warnings, suspensions, and terminations,” Ferguson said. “However, Ostrom never told them how much they were actually harvesting.”
Ferguson said the company fired more than 140 out of their 180 mushroom pickers who were U.S. residents between January 2021 and May 2022. He said most were qualified, female workers with years of experience.
After than, Ferguson said their second application to the federal government went through and they were able to hire 65 workers from Mexico through the H-2A program, only two of whom were women.
Additionally, Ferguson said the company misrepresented the terms of the job to prospective employees in Sunnyside and throughout Yakima County.
“For example, Ostrom represented that workers needed at least three months of agricultural experience to work at the farm — even though they employed H-2A workers who had no such experience,” Ferguson said in a news release.
Ferguson said the company also offered its H-2A workers a wage rate of $17.41 an hour, when other pickers were only being paid on average $14 an hour.
“The evidence my team uncovered is clear,” Ferguson said. “Ostrom discriminated against female farmworkers and Washington residents so that it could hire mostly male foreign H-2A workers who have fewer rights. Their conduct is disturbing and unlawful.”
Ferguson said the goal of the lawsuit is to prevent the company from “continuing with their illegal conduct,” to get restitution for workers who were fired and compensate U.S.-based workers who were being paid less than H-2A workers.
“We’re here not because we want to cause any harm to this company,” Rosas said. “We really want to continue working. We really want the farm to pick up the pieces and go on with us.”
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