Female Hispanic Farmworkers Were Forced to Endure Severe Harassment and Retaliation, Federal Agency Charges
HARRISBURG, Pa. – A major farm growers’ cooperative with processing plants in three states violated federal law by subjecting a class of female employees to pervasive harassment based on sex and national origin and firing one employee in retaliation for complaining about it, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it announced today.
The EEOC charges in its suit against Knouse Foods Cooperative, Inc. that a class of female farmworkers was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment by male coworkers at its processing plant in Gardners, Pa. The perpetrators allegedly engaged in unrelenting sexual harassment, including: making sexual advances to female employees; asking them to expose their breasts; asking them on dates; and making vulgar sexual comments. The male coworkers also engaged in threatening behavior, such as using the forklift to chase women or blocking them with their bodies or a broom while they walked down the hall.
The EEOC also charges that the women were subjected to unlawful harassment because of their Mexican national origin. Employees yelled and cursed at the class members, threw things at them and pushed them, and called them derogatory terms such as “dumb Mexican” or “stupid Mexican.”
The EEOC said that the class members repeatedly complained about the sexual and national origin harassment to supervisors and managers, but Knouse Foods failed to take prompt and effective action to stop the harassment. Instead, the agency said, the harassment intensified or continued.
Further, the EEOC says that Knouse Foods retaliated against employees who opposed the harassment, including disciplining three of them for conduct that other employees routinely engaged in and were not disciplined for, and terminating one Mexican female employee as retaliation.
“This is another tragic example of an employer failing to stop cruel, humiliating, and illegal victimization of vulnerable employees,” said EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru. “Worse yet, here the employer even punished the victims for speaking out against their mistreatment. The EEOC is focused on protecting the rights of farmworkers and migrant workers to be free from employment discrimination and retaliation. That is why we’re filing this lawsuit.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful to harass employees based on sex, national origin or any other protected basis. Title VII also prohibits an employer from retaliating against someone who complains about employment discrimination. The EEOC filed suit (Civil Action No. 09-cv-1811) in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania after first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement. The EEOC seeks injunctive relief to end the discriminatory practices, plus back pay and compensatory and punitive damages to compensate the victims for their monetary losses and emotional pain and suffering.
“Unfortunately, farmworker women are often especially vulnerable to unlawful sexual harassment,” said District Director Marie M. Tomasso of the EEOC’s Philadelphia District Office, which oversees Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, and parts of New Jersey and Ohio. “The EEOC is committed to addressing the pervasive problem of sexual harassment of farmworker women and other low-income workers.”
Debra Lawrence, acting regional attorney for the EEOC’s Philadelphia District Office, added, “It is shocking that Knouse Foods tolerated such offensive and threatening behavior at its work site. The EEOC will continue its comprehensive efforts to enforce its mission of eradicating sexual and national origin harassment in the workplace – whether the workplace is a farm or an office and whether the victim is an hourly worker or an executive.”
According to its web site, http://www.knousefoodservice.com, Knouse Foods operates seven processing plants in three states, covering nearly 2.4 million square feet on close to 300,000 acres. Knouse Foods packs apple juice and applesauce in a variety of sizes and employs 150 individuals at its Gardners site.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.