Plowed Under: Latina Tractor Driver Harassed, Retaliation Against at Organic Farm, Says EEOC

The situation down on the farm was inhospitable to a Latina tractor driver, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The largest grower of organic tree fruit in the United States, Stemilt Growers, and its integrated business, Stemilt Ag Services, violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by subjecting a Latina tractor driver to sexual harassment and then retaliating against her after she reported the abuse, the EEOC alleged.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, Heidi Corona had worked for Stemilt as a tractor driver for over three years in Quincy, Wash., when she transferred to the company’s Wenatchee, Wash., orchard, where she was the only female in this job position. The EEOC charged that on her second day at the new location, Corona’s direct supervisor drove her to a remote area and then proceeded to make sexually explicit comments, proposition her for sex, and attempted to kiss her. Trapped in a moving vehicle at an unfamiliar and remote location with no cell service, Corona asked him to stop making such comments and stated that she was only there to work.

The agency also found that after this incident, the supervisor assigned Corona to pick up trash and excluded her from meetings with the other tractor drivers. When Corona reported the harassment to upper management, she was given a choice of continuing to work under that supervisor or accepting a transfer to work as a warehouse sorter for lower pay. She took the latter, the EEOC said.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under which employers are required to prevent and remedy sexual harassment and are prohibited from retaliation against an employee who reports harassment. The EEOC filed its lawsuit (Case No._____________) in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. EEOC seeks lost wages, monetary damages (including compensation for emotional distress and punitive damages), and injunctive relief, including training on anti-discrimination laws.

“No one should have to choose between continuing to work under a harasser or taking a pay cut to feel safe at work,” said EEOC Senior Trial Attorney Carmen Flores. “Employers are responsible for the conduct of their supervisors and must act promptly to stop harassment of their workers.”

EEOC Seattle Field Office Director Nancy Sienko said, “We have seen how farmworkers, a group that is so often comprised of 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. Corona.”

Wenatchee-based Stemilt Growers LLC and its wholly owned subsidiary Stemilt Ag Services LLC operate and manage over 150 acres of orchards in Eastern Washington and employed over 6,000 workers in the 2009 growing season.

The EEOC’s Seattle Field Office has jurisdiction over Eastern Washington.

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