A Molalla, Ore., nursery violated federal law when it allowed female employees to be severely sexually harassed and retaliated against the women and male co-workers after they reported the harassment, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it filed today. This is the agency’s third such case against Oregon agricultural employers. Last October, the EEOC filed lawsuits against Scheimer Farms of Nyassa, Ore., and against Wilcox Farms, Inc., and Wilcox Dairy Farms Group in Aurora, Ore.

The EEOC’s suit charges that sexual harassment and retaliation occurred at the Molalla, Ore., facility of Willamette Tree Wholesale, which operates 140 acres of retail nursery farmland, including a garden supply store and business office. According to the federal agency’s investigation, one worker, a 38-year-old Latina, was taken to remote areas of the farm by the company foreman and raped repeatedly over several months. In addition to threatening her with termination and loss of needed income, the harasser physically coerced her with pruning shears, and made threats against her life as well as against her family. Ultimately, when she refused to be sexually assaulted yet again, she was fired.

Another Latina co-worker, age 35, faced daily sexual innuendos and propositions for sex as well as grabbing and touching. When she and her husband, who also worked there, reported sexual harassment by a crew leader, Willamette Tree failed to investigate or respond to their complaint. The EEOC alleges that the couple and her brother were terminated in retaliation for having reported and opposed sexual harassment.

“All sexual harassment isunacceptable, but what happened hereis unspeakable,” said EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru. “This shows how dangerous a situation can become when employers are hostile to workers' rights andsexual harassment goes unchecked. There simply is no excuse for any employer tolerating this sort of worker abuse, and enough is enough. The EEOCis going to be focusing more and more on finding new and better ways to reach the most vulnerable of discrimination victims, like these farm workers, and to halt this kind of horrific mistreatment."

Sexual harassment and retaliation for complaining about it violate Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon (EEOC v. Willamette Tree Wholesale, Inc. (CV-09-690-PK) after first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement out of court. The workers will be represented in the lawsuit by the Oregon Law Center, which brought the case to the EEOC’s attention. The EEOC seeks monetary damages on behalf of the workers, training on anti-discrimination laws, posting of notices at the work site, and other injunctive relief.

EEOC Regional Attorney William R. Tamayo said, “From California, where the fields were called ‘field de calzon’ (or ‘field of panties’) because so many supervisors raped women there, to Florida, where female farm workers call them ‘The Green Motel,’ and throughout the country, we have found women working in agriculture are often particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. We hope this third Oregon lawsuit will send notice to employers in this industry to stop predatory sexual behavior and abuses of supervisor power.”

EEOC District Director Michael Baldonado noted, “Our investigation found that sexual harassment at Willamette Tree was widespread, tolerated, expected, and a condition of employment.
Instead of investigating reports of sexual harassment and taking action to stop or prevent it, these employers ignored repeated signs of harassment and blamed the victims. We hope this lawsuit will encourage workers to be able to step forward about discrimination without fear of losing their jobs.”

Workers who suffered sexual harassment at Willamette Tree Wholesale should contact the EEOC to determine if they qualify to be part of the class: contact Carmen Flores at (206) 220-6853.

In 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment on a jury verdict of over $1,000,000 in favor of the EEOC and farm worker Olivia Tamayo (no relation to William Tamayo) in a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit against Coalinga, Calif.-based Harris Farms, one of the largest integrated farming operations in the Central San Joaquin Valley.