From Farms To Swanky Resorts: EEOC Obtains Enormous Damages For Vulnerable Workers

In the employment discrimination field, we all know about the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”):  its announced set of priorities.  Seems that one company hit on quite a number of the EEOC’s priority points – sexual harassment, retaliation, and the abuse of vulnerable workers – in this case farmworkers.

Potatoes harvest and woman

Enormous damages of $1.47 million was just awarded by a California federal judge to a class of sexually harassed farmworkers represented by the EEOC.

The EEOC’s press release stated that “The court found that two supervisors for the Madera, Calif.-based company [Z Foods] subjected multiple female farmworkers to ongoing sexual harassment. The sexual harassment took the form of conditioning promotions and employment on sexual favors, continuous sexual advances, stalking female employees and unwanted physical touching and leering. Male employees, who witnessed the egregious harassment, complained about the abuse alongside their female employees. These employees were retaliated against and discharged soon after their complaint.”

The fact that male workers complained on behalf of the harassed female workers is progress of a sort, I guess.

Five serious young people hold up hands indicating Stop

I said back in February, apropos farm workers: “The common thread is the vulnerability of these workers: where they are powerless, have low-status jobs, fear the immigration laws, perhaps cannot speak English; are physically isolated in the job; or may be mentally or developmentally challenged.”

Another settlement which the EEOC announced last February was against “[o”]ne of the largest apple producers in the United States [which] will pay $272,000 to 20 claimants as part of a settlement resolving sexual harassment and retaliation claims.”

Lest urban folks feel a sense of being above or beyond this issue, I posted earlier that “This exploitation is not unique to rural areas in the South or West – on 12/5/15 I posted that the EEOC had just announced another such settlement ‘right here in New York’s summer playground for the global super-wealthy.  The settlement – for $582,000 – resolved a sexual harassment lawsuit by eight women against a commercial laundry service in the swanky Hamptons.’”

Luxury Holiday Resort

And I quoted the EEOC’s General Counsel David Lopez when the EEOC announced an equally large award against a Vail ski resort:  “This is the latest in a series of enforcement efforts … This includes those living and working in the shadows who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.”

My Takeaway then and now:  Employers should understand that, from the top down, an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment tone and policy must be set, and all management personnel as well as line workers must be trained and educated in the basics of discrimination and harassment law and compliance and its application in the workplace.

Employers should not tolerate discrimination or harassment in any form, and must make it clear by words and deeds that employees have the right to complain about such acts and that their complaints will be heard, investigated and, if good cause is found, remediated promptly.

The agricultural industry is not unique or alone in its being targeted as an EEOC priority:  it is simply an industry where workers may be at their most vulnerable because of the nature of that workplace.  Accordingly, extra attention to compliance must be paid by these employers.



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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]