ConAgra to Pay Nearly $1 Million to Victims, Make Job Offers, Provide ADA Training to Managers
San Francisco - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced a conciliation agreement reached with Gilroy Foods and its owner, ConAgra Foods, Inc., a Nebraska-based foods company with $27 billion in annual sales. This resolves complaints filed with the EEOC alleging disability discrimination at an onion and garlic dehydration plant in King City, near Salinas. The federal investigation found that workers were denied hire, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Providing compensation of $993,500 and job offers (estimated value of $500,000) for thirty-nine workers, today's agreement is the largest disability settlement ever for the EEOC in the agricultural industry.
EEOC San Francisco District Director Susan McDuffie commended ConAgra for moving quickly and decisively to reach conciliation. "By working with EEOC to resolve this matter, ConAgra has clearly shown its commitment to making needed changes to policies and practices that ensure equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. I am very pleased by this agreement, which avoids litigation and allows the workers to move on with their lives." She noted that in addition to the monetary benefits and job offers, ConAgra has committed to ADA training for all its management staff and posting notices about the agreement for a year.
In July 1999, the Teamsters Local 890 led a strike of 750 workers at 800-worker plant in King City, then owned by Basic Vegetable Products, LP. In November 2000, ConAgra bought the facility, and in August 2001, it successfully negotiated with the union to end the two-year strike with a new contract that would recall workers based on seniority. However, the recall process excluded people who were on leave at the time of the purchase including those out due to work injury or pregnancy. Others were denied jobs due to a history of previous injury or illness, even though they had been doing the work for years and had no restrictions against returning to work.
Most of the thirty-nine workers who were excluded from the recall process had been working at the plant processing garlic and onions for ten to twenty years some even longer. Primarily Hispanic and mostly female, many of them were in their thirties and forties and married with children.
Elvira Parales, a Lab Technician who had worked at the facility for 15 years, said through a translator, "After winning such a long hard strike, it was devastating to be told that I was not fit for duty and could not return to work. I have been processing onions and garlic and checking product quality for over a decade. I am thankful to the EEOC for investigating our case, and very happy to go back to work."
According to EEOC Enforcement Supervisor Rich Proulx, who oversaw the investigation and negotiation of this case, "The ADA protects workers qualified to work who have a disability, or have a history of a disability, or are regarded as having a disability." He noted that ConAgra's recall process denied jobs to workers who were on leaves of absence at the time of the purchase and those who had medical records of impairment or illness without properly assessing each worker's qualifications. "Employers have a duty to make decisions based on each individual's abilities and not myths, fears and stereotypes about disabilities."
He added, "The courage of these workers to step forward and protest discrimination is laudable. It was an important victory, breaking through the barriers that often keep immigrant workers from asserting their rights."
"This dispute arose over a misunderstanding of re-employment rights of a small group of employees who were on leaves of absence when ConAgra Foods bought the plant," said Jessica Berg, a ConAgra Foods spokesperson. "We are pleased to have resolved this dispute and believe this agreement is in the best interests of all parties involved."
Title I of the ADA prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in job application procedures, hiring, discharge, advancement, compensation, job training, and other terms and conditions of employment. In addition to enforcing the ADA, EEOC enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the Equal Pay Act; prohibitions against discrimination affecting individuals with disabilities in the federal government; and sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. For more information about EEOC, please visit www.eeoc.gov.