Wall Street Journal
January 24, 2005
FARMWORKER GETS RARE WIN AGAINST GROWER
By Miriam Jordan
In a case that spotlights problems faced by migrant women working on farms, a federal-court jury in Fresno on Friday found one of California’s largest agricultural businesses liable for sexual harassment and awarded its employee nearly $1 million.
The unanimous verdict against Harris Farms Inc. marks the first time that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken a sexual-harassment case involving the agriculture industry to trial. Previous cases brought by the agency, which enforces antidiscrimination law in the workplace, have been settled out of court. Farm-worker advocates and labor lawyers applauded the verdict, saying it focuses attention on a widespread problem that is rarely reported.
“The jury’s verdict sends a message to all agricultural employers that they must protect their workers against sexual harassment,” said William Tamayo, regional attorney for the EEOC in San Francisco.
The EEOC sued the Coalinga-based company on behalf of farmworker Olivia Tamayo (no relation to the attorney), who filed a charge with the federal agency against her employer in 1999. Ms. Tamayo, 45 years old, who weeded crops and drove a tractor for Harris Farms, alleged that she was physically and verbally attacked by a supervisor, verbally abused by co-workers and then retaliated against by the company after she reported the harassment.
According to her testimony, between 1993 and 1995, the supervisor drove her to isolated locations in a truck and raped her on several occasions; he reminded her that he carried a gun and pocketknife to prevent her from reporting the assaults. No criminal charges were filed against the supervisor after a deputy sheriff interviewed Ms. Tamayo and did not find her allegations credible, according to court transcripts. The supervisor retired from Harris Farms in 1999.
Privately-held Harris Farms is a diversified farming concern spread across 14,000 acres of land in the Fresno area. It grows tomatoes, cotton and almonds and owns cattle and racehorse ranches, as well as a hotel and restaurant.
Chairman John Harris said he is considering an appeal of the verdict. “We are very disappointed,” he said. “We thought we had an excellent case.” In an interview a few days earlier, he said that his company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the lawsuit because it was convinced that the relationship between Ms. Tamayo and the supervisor had been consensual. In his deposition, the supervisor said he and Ms. Tamayo had sex three times a week over several years, according to court transcripts.
Mr. Harris described the case as an attempt at “extortion” by the EEOC. “They considered us a deep-pocketed employer,” HE SAID.
Sexual-harassment suits were filed against a number of U.S. businesses in the 1990s, but the agricultural business has generally escaped, said Susan Estrich, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “The gap between the powerful and powerless is greatest in the fields,” said the professor, who specializes in sexual discrimination. “The verdict sends a message that it is going to be very expensive for growers to tolerate this kind of [inappropriate] conduct.”
EEOC lead counsel Linda Ordonio-Dixon said she hoped the verdict against Harris Farms would embolden other women in the fields to report harassment.
Women account for about one-quarter of the agricultural labor force, according to the Labor Department. Agricultural researchers say women represent about half of all workers in fruit and vegetable packing sheds and nurseries. Mostly poor immigrants, they are isolated by language, culture and lack of education. Desperate to keep their jobs, they rarely take action if they are sexually harassed. Many are also illegal residents, which contributes to their reluctance to report problems.
“Sexual harassment is pervasive,” said Monica Ramirez, an attorney at the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Florida, which is also doing outreach. “There have been very few lawsuits because these women are afraid and lack information to assert their rights.” Ms. Tamayo in 1999 described her problems to an agency that helps poor women, and she was referred to the EEOC.
In California, home to the largest agricultural industry in the U.S., the EEOC has filed none sexual-harassment lawsuits in federal court since 1998. All were settled before reaching trial. In the biggest case, lettuce grower Tanimura & Antle agreed in 1999 to pay nearly $1.9 million to settle allegations of sexual harassment at its facilities in California and Arizona.
The EEIC investigates each charge, or complaint, filed by a worker. After investigating Ms. Tamayo’s charge, the EEOC said it found there was reasonable cause to believe that Harris Farms failed to prevent and correct the sexual harassment. The EEOC invited Harris Farms to settle the case before taking it to court. Harris Farms denied the charges, and the parties didn’t reach an agreement.
Ms. Tamayo, a Mexican native with a third-grade education and five children, has been working in the fields since the 1980s. She continued to work as her case wore on – but not for Harris Farms. She currently works as a lettuce picker. Though not a U.S. citizen, she has a green card enabling her to legally work in this country.
The jury awarded Ms. Tamayo $500,000 in punitive damages, $350,000 for emotional distress, $53,000 in back pay and $91,000 for future lost earnings. Ms. Tamayo said after the verdict: “I suffered a lot. Now, I am happy.”