Female Workers Face Rape, Harassment In U.S. Agriculture Industry
SUNNYSIDE, Wash. – Esther Abarca said the foreman drove to parts of the apple orchard that she had never seen. Deep into the ranch, in what she could describe only as a “desolate place,” he parked the truck, reached over and tried to grab her.
Weeping as she told her story, Abarca said the foreman got out of the truck when she resisted his advances. He opened the side door, climbed on top of her, and began to kiss and grope her. She called for help and tried to push him away, but he got her pants halfway off.
“I kept screaming, but there was nobody there,” Abarca said.
Abarca said she kept screaming as the foreman groped her. But then, as if suddenly chastened by her crying, kicking and pushing, she said he stopped. He told her that if she didn’t tell anyone what had happened, he’d give her $3,000 for a new car.
Abarca, a mother of three, said she refused the money.
“I told him that that was the very reason why I had come here to work, that I did not need him to give me any money at all,” she said.
The foreman’s alleged first assault came in 2009, during the long days of the Yakima Valley apple harvest in central Washington. An immigrant from Mexico, Abarca was new to the Evans Fruit Co., one of the country’s largest apple producers.
Nearly four years later, Abarca’s story was the subject of a federal court case testing whether the owners of Evans Fruit looked the other way as their workers claimed they were subjected to repeated sexual violence and harassment by an orchard foreman and crew bosses.
It was a rare public accusation for an immigrant, many of whom fear retaliation and deportation if they speak up. Abarca was testifying in only the second case of a farmworker claiming sexual harassment to reach a federal court trial.
Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism reveals persistent peril for women working in the food industry. An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms.
In partnership with FRONTLINE and Univision, CIR and IRP spent nearly a year reviewing thousands of pages of documents and crisscrossing the nation – from the tightly ordered orchards of the Yakima Valley to the leafy tomato fields of southern Florida – to hear workers’ stories of sexual assault.
Hundreds of female agricultural workers have complained to the federal government about being raped and assaulted, verbally and physically harassed on the job, while law enforcement has done almost nothing to prosecute potential crimes.
In virtually all of the cases reviewed, the alleged perpetrators held positions of power over the women. Despite the accusations, these supervisors have remained on the job for years without fear of arrest.
At the trial, Abarca was among more than a dozen women who had accused a foreman, Juan Marin, and a handful of crew leaders at Evans Fruit of sexually assaulting or harassing them. For her part, Abarca said she had been topping off bins with just-picked apples when the foreman called to her from his pickup. He told her to get in the truck, she testified.
Marin said he never sexually assaulted or harassed Abarca or any of the other women, and he has not been arrested or prosecuted in criminal court for the allegations.
At a federal civil trial this year featuring 14 women telling their stories, a jury found that whatever had happened at Evans Fruit, it did not create a sexually hostile work environment, which had to be established before the company could be held liable.
Government attorneys who prosecuted the civil case have requested a new trial. In court filings, they called the verdict “unmoored from the actual evidence.”
Marin, who had worked for Evans Fruit for more than three decades, said the claims are based on lies and rumors spread by “a bunch of jealous people” who are trying to win money from the company.
“I’ve been accused of sexual harassment, and that’s completely a lie,” Marin said in one of several interviews. “Because I never bothered nobody. The only thing I’ve been doing in my life is work. To me it’s so unfair, because I never did nothing like that in my life.”
Nevertheless, two complaints against Marin prompted owner Bill Evans to write him a letter in 2006, four years before Marin was fired for alleged embezzlement.
“We don’t have the time or energy to continue dealing with the problems you are bringing down on us,” the letter said. “Any further incidents or complaints of sexual harassment and you will be discharged.”
The company drafted its first sexual harassment policy in 2008.
A National Problem
Reports of harassment and sexual violence against female farmworkers span the U.S. map.
In Molalla, Ore., a worker at a tree farm accused her supervisor of repeatedly raping her over the course of several months in 2006 and 2007, often holding gardening shears to her throat. If she complained to anyone, he allegedly told her, he would fire her and kill her entire family.
The supervisor never was prosecuted, and a civil case against the tree farm was settled for $150,000 in 2011 without the company acknowledging wrongdoing. The payment went to the woman and three family members who said they were harassed or fired in retaliation.
Three hundred miles away, in Lind, Wash., an egg farm manager forced a woman working alone in a hen-laying house to routinely give him oral sex to keep her job between 2003 and 2010, according to a statement she gave to the sheriff. In an interview with the sheriff, the manager denied the accusation. He did not return calls for comment.
That case was settled for $650,000 this year – most of it to be paid to the woman and four other workers who claimed the company had fired them in retaliation for complaining. The manager no longer works at the farm.
In a case pending in Mississippi federal court, dozens of women hired to debone chickens at a poultry processing plant said they were violently groped by a supervisor between 2004 and 2008. One woman who said she was grabbed between her legs had to seek medical attention, according to court filings.
And a worker at a Salinas, Calif.-based lettuce farm accused a manager of raping her in 2006 – a charge he denied to company management, according to court documents. Maricruz Ladino sued the grower, and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2010. She did not file a police report, and there was no criminal prosecution. He no longer works for the company.
“There are supervisors who try to use their power to mistreat people or to abuse them,” said Ladino, who has since left the company. “And it’s very difficult to fight against that because we are working out of necessity, because we need to provide for our families.”
Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, an employment firm that coordinates farm and seasonal employees in the Pacific Northwest, said similar problems exist in other industries, and he points to an example of workplace rape that involved a real estate company.
“Harassment occurs in agriculture,” he said, “but there is no proof that it occurs more (often) in agriculture.”
But a review of the 41 federal sexual harassment lawsuits filed against agricultural enterprises since 1998 – when the first federal lawsuit was filed against an agricultural company for failing to stop harassment or abuse – reveals a pattern of supervisors accused of preying on multiple workers.
Among these were at least 153 people who alleged workplace abuses, the vast majority by their superiors. Of the lawsuits, 7 out of 8 involved workers claiming physical harassment, assault or rape.
According to civil court documents, in nearly every case, workers made complaints to company management and, among those, 85 percent faced retaliation – such as being demoted, fired or further harassed. In their review of the federal cases, CIR and IRP could not find a single case in which the men accused of sexual assault or rape in the civil suits had been criminally prosecuted.
Cycle of Silence
An estimated 50 to 75 percent of U.S. farmworkers immigrated to the U.S. illegally, according to advocacy groups and government surveys. In interviews, more than 100 government officials, law enforcement officials, lawyers and social service providers said shame, fear of deportation or losing a job, language barriers and ignorance of workplace laws keep low-wage immigrant laborers silent.
For government lawyer William R. Tamayo, whose father worked at sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, the first inkling of what was happening to women in America’s fields and packinghouses came when he visited with California labor advocates in the mid-1990s.
“They said farmworker women were talking about the fields as the fils de calzón, or ‘fields of panties,’ ” said Tamayo, the regional attorney in San Francisco for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which files sexual harassment lawsuits on behalf of employees, including farm and food factory workers. “They referred to the fields as the ‘green motel.’ ”
Without immigration papers or job options, many agricultural workers live the largely traceless lives that low-wage seasonal work demands. For some, it’s a shadow dimension of disposable phones, weekly visits to check-cashing chains and elusive last-known addresses.
It’s a life based on the incessant search for the next job in whatever crop needs harvesting. Migrant workers can land year-round gigs at dairies or processing plants, but it’s not easy to forget their own financial instability – and supervisors know this.
If a foreman wants to test the extent of his authority, here are the perfect victims, worker advocates said.
“Sexual violence doesn’t happen unless there’s an imbalance of power,” Tamayo said. “And in the agricultural industry, the imbalance of power between perpetrator, company and the worker is probably at its greatest.”
The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report crimes. The federal government estimates that 65 percent of all sexual assault and rape victims never report the crime.
Immigrants, especially those who entered the country without authorization, are even less likely to complain, according to academic studies.
The legal research and advocacy group ASISTA surveyed more than 100 women working at Iowa meatpacking plants in 2009. An analysis of these surveys shows that 41 percent said they’d experienced unwanted touching, and about 30 percent reported receiving sexual propositions.
More than 25 percent of the women said they’d been threatened with firing or harder work if they didn’t let the aggressor have his way.
It’s a similar picture in California, where a UC Santa Cruz study of 150 female farmworkers published in 2010 found that nearly 40 percent experienced sexual harassment ranging from verbal advances to rape on the job, and 24 percent said they had experienced sexual coercion by a supervisor.
Many take sexual harassment as a job hazard, advocates said.
When attorney Laura Mahr started talking to Oregon’s female farmworkers about sexual harassment and assault, some of them said, “ ‘Oh, that’s not just part of the job? You have laws about that?’ ”
Many women, Mahr said, have risked their lives to cross the border, sometimes becoming indebted to human smugglers along the way. Coming forward means possibly losing their livelihood.
“It’s an epidemic in the field,” said Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers. “It goes back to the vulnerability that women have … especially if they’re undocumented. And you know, the machismo culture of power and when you think of this type of sexual harassment or rape, it’s always about power of men over women.”
Few Complaints Make It To Court
The only federal agency actively and systematically pursuing on-the-job sexual violence and harassment cases on behalf of agricultural workers is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace.
In the past 15 years, workers have filed 1,106 sexual harassment complaints with the commission against agricultural-related industries. The allegations range from verbal harassment to rape.
Only a fraction will make it to federal court. The commission declines to pursue about 50 percent of the sexual harassment complaints across all industries for lack of substance. Another portion is settled out of court.
For the few cases in which the commission files a lawsuit in federal court – 130 cases last year out of about 11,000 sexual harassment complaints across all businesses in the U.S. – a handful will make it to trial.
Some growers said they believe the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is too adversarial and aggressive through litigation. Brendan V. Monahan, an attorney for Evans Fruit, said the commission approaches farmers as the enemy rather than trying to work constructively with them.
“The EEOC has imagined this adversarial relationship between farmers and laborers that I don’t think really exists, and they have chosen to champion labor in an imagined fight against farmers,” he said. “It should be a matter of conciliation and compliance rather than confrontation and coerced enforcement.”
But David Lopez, general counsel for the commission, disagreed and said it files cases involving “egregious cases of discrimination” that warrant civil prosecution, and he warned against painting the entire agricultural industry as bad actors.
Nevertheless, he said, “I do know that we do see very serious cases of discrimination and harassment in the agricultural industry.”
Although agriculture is America’s oldest industry, the first sexual harassment lawsuit against a grower to reach a jury trial was in 2004. The Evans Fruit trial this year was the second.
That landmark first case involved Olivia Tamayo, who worked for California-based Harris Farms, among the largest agribusinesses in the country. (Olivia Tamayo is not related to William Tamayo, the attorney for the federal commission.) She said a supervisor named Rene Rodriguez raped her three separate times after showing her he was carrying a gun. Rodriguez denied it.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Harris Farms on her behalf in 2002. After a 23-day trial, the jury found Harris Farms liable for sexual harassment and retaliation and awarded nearly $800,000 in lost wages and compensatory and punitive damages.
In a statement, CEO John Harris said the company denies any wrongdoing. The workers had a consensual relationship that the company did not know about, Harris said in the statement. He said although the jury believed the accused employee was a supervisor, “we felt he was not.”
Rodriguez retired in 1999. At an interview at his home in South Texas, Rodriguez insisted that he and Olivia Tamayo had been dating. She accused him of rape, he said, because she wanted money.
“No, no, no, no,” he said when asked if he’d used violence against Olivia Tamayo. “If that was how it was from the beginning, I would have been jailed or something.”
Olivia Tamayo’s lawyer, William J. Smith, a longtime civil rights advocate, said that when she won her case, he thought it would change the landscape for agricultural workers. He said he knows differently now.
“Even though Olivia Tamayo stood up for her rights, people are still afraid,” he said. “I don’t think it caught on the way we thought it would because the fear is still out there.”
Farmworkers’ vulnerability is compounded because a number of federal labor laws, ranging from minimum wage to underage work, don’t apply in agriculture. A handful of states, including California, Oregon and Washington, provide stronger legal protections.
“If there’s violation of wage and hour laws, if there are children laboring in the fields, of course there’s going to be sexual harassment, because even the bread-and-butter issues aren’t being addressed,” said Ramón Ramírez, a founder and president of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, the farmworkers union based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
This year, growers and labor advocates are closely watching as a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws makes its way through Congress. Proponents say the bill, if approved, could offer protections for agricultural workers to more readily report abuse on the job.
“One of the fundamental reasons we have to get comprehensive immigration reform is so we can stop the daily routine rape of women in the workplace,” said U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., a vocal proponent of an overhaul.
But some who support new immigration laws have doubts that they would curb sexual harassment in the fields.
Fazio of the Washington Farm Labor Association said workers who have been assaulted or raped already qualify for a special visa for crime victims. Providing provisional status through the bill, he said, “is not going to make a person more likely to come forward.”
The primary solution lies with employers, who must create a “culture of compliance,” he said. “They need to put systems in place.”
Cases Difficult to Pursue
Beyond the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, farmworkers in some parts of the country can turn to state agencies to file workplace sexual harassment cases against agricultural employers. But those are rare.
In Washington – home to more agricultural workers than any state except California – laborers filed 92 cases of alleged sexual harassment with the state Human Rights Commission against agricultural companies between 2005 and 2012. Of those, 67 cases were shelved by the commission for having “no reasonable cause” or because the office faced uncooperative witnesses or a statute of limitation.
The rest – 25 cases – resulted in settlements or remain open.
In rural areas, access to attorneys for low-income clients is limited, making it difficult for farmworkers to file civil cases on their own in state courts. For example, in California’s Central Valley and Central Coast, some of the most productive agricultural regions in the country, there are a handful of private and legal aid organizations that take on these cases.
Michael Marsh, directing attorney of the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance, one of the few organizations in the state to take farmworker sexual harassment cases, said that each harvest, at least two farmworkers come to his office to say their boss raped them. This year, he and his colleagues have already met with three.
In March, a berry farm supervisor who raped a farmworker represented by Marsh’s office was convicted in a state case and sentenced to prison, but the chances of other criminal cases moving forward are not high.
In some cases, state prosecutors are reluctant to file criminal charges. Sheriffs and police officials said these cases can be difficult to pursue. When reports are made, there often is scant evidence and few witnesses, they said. The burden of proof in criminal cases is much higher than in civil court.
“If you get into a courtroom and there is no physical evidence, it’s a tough nut to crack,” said Sgt. Kris Zuniga of the Avenal Police Department in agriculturally rich Kings County, Calif. “If there is some evidence, he can say it was consensual and then you’re back to a he said, she said.”
The 2002 civil sexual harassment case against DeCoster Farms of Iowa, an egg processing plant, and a co-defendant, Iowa Ag LLC, illustrates how well-documented civil cases go nowhere in criminal court.
After the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a civil lawsuit accused three plant supervisors of “repeated and systematic raping” and sexual harassment of nearly a dozen women in boiler rooms and trucks over six years, law enforcement intervened. The Wright County Sheriff’s Department investigated the claims, along with representatives from the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office.
In one interview, a 28-year-old worker said a supervisor violated her in his truck when he was moving her from one part of the plant to another. She tried to scream and fight off the assault, the sheriff’s report said, but “he put the knife up to the side of her face and told her he would kill her if she didn’t let him do it.”
He told her that she was not the only woman he had raped, according to the sheriff’s report. None of the supervisors still works for the egg farm.
Paul Schultz, then the sheriff of Wright County, took statements from seven women, and five of them said they were regularly raped at DeCoster. But the local prosecutor told him there was not enough evidence to take the case to court.
It’s a case that still fills Schultz with regret. Most of the women have moved away. But Schultz said that if he had an opportunity to speak with them again, he would apologize. He’d tell them, “I’m sorry that the prosecution could not be pursued,” he said.
DeCoster Farms and Iowa Ag paid $1.5 million to settle the federal civil lawsuit later that year. In the process, they denied all of the allegations. Another Iowa egg company owned by Austin DeCoster, known as Quality Egg, settled a federal sexual harassment lawsuit in 2012 for $85,000.
But for the three men accused of serially raping the DeCoster workers, life goes on. One of the alleged perpetrators lives in a tree-lined subdivision in a small Iowa town.
According to family members, the other two have relocated to Mexico. One of them on his Facebook page lists members of the DeCoster family as his friends.
An Image At Odds With Allegations
The Evans Fruit Co. is one of the biggest apple operations in the country, shipping 320 million pounds a year to markets around the globe. A job there is desirable, workers said in interviews, because the size of the operation means more work, longer days and bigger paychecks.
The claims lodged against Evans Fruit for failing to stop sexual assault and harassment can be difficult to reconcile with its homespun image.
The company’s beginnings make it seem beyond reproach. Bill and Jeannette Evans, now in their 80s, first met at a chocolate shop in downtown Yakima, Wash., got married as teenagers and started the company with 10 acres. They work nearly every day of the year, and now the company cultivates its award-winning crop across 7,500 acres on various farms.
The ranch that Juan Marin managed is Evans Fruit’s second largest. The orchard sits at the foot of the Rattlesnake Hills, near the city of Sunnyside. The property is vast: From the main road, stands of apple trees blend into distant orchards, a blur of fruit, branches and greenery.
Here, some 50 miles from company headquarters, Marin wielded power in the ugliest ways, workers claimed in interviews and court testimony. In these remote and endless groves, Marin is said to have bragged constantly about his sexual exploits and to have groped women while they stood on ladders filling picking bags.
It’s where he allegedly pinned 15-year-old Jacqueline Abundez between tree branches and said – loudly enough for bystanders to hear – that despite her young age, she could “already endure the stick,” a former Evans Fruit tractor driver told government investigators.
Abundez filed a sexual harassment claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2006. Her mother, Angela Mendoza, filed another claim based on what allegedly happened to her daughter, telling lawyers in a deposition that Marin had said: “Give me your daughter. I’ll marry her and I’ll have her give birth every year to a son or a daughter year after year.”
In an unrelated case, Abundez was found dead in 2008 at age 17, her body dumped in an irrigation canal. The Yakima County Sheriff’s Office investigated, but her death remains unsolved. The judge dropped her harassment case, along with her mother’s.
Attorneys for Evans Fruit said the company could not substantiate the claims by Abundez or Mendoza that they had been harassed.
In 2008, more complaints came in. An apple picker named Wendy Granados told the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Marin separated women from their husbands, who also worked for Evans Fruit, so that he could harass them. He “offered pay raises, cars, and houses in exchange for sexual favors,” according to her complaint.
Later that year, another Evans worker named Norma Valdez filed a claim alleging that Marin had forcibly hugged and kissed her in his truck and said he had done the same thing in 2005. He called her “my love” and “my star,” and he told people at the ranch that she was pregnant with his child, according to the complaint.
The company’s lawyers said they could find no corroborating evidence of misbehavior, and Marin kept his job.
In June 2010, the commission filed a lawsuit against Evans Fruit alleging that Marin and some of the crew leaders had sexually harassed or assaulted at least seven women at the Sunnyside ranch. As the case progressed, a total of 26 women with similar claims joined the lawsuit.
In her case, Esther Abarca testified that Marin groped her three more times – once again in his truck and twice after he had taken her to properties he owned.
At trial, these incidents were used to discredit Abarca because she hadn’t mentioned the later incidents in her deposition testimony.
“It made my job on cross-exam much easier,” said Monahan, the attorney for Evans Fruit. “I was able to illustrate for the jury this remarkable escalation of alleged offenses. My sense is the jury found her absolutely not credible.”
Four additional women told stories like Abarca’s in federal court: Marin ordered them into his truck and then fondled or attacked them, they said. Others said Marin had propositioned them for sex or offered to put them up as mistresses in exchange for bearing him a son.
Several women accused other crew leaders of misbehavior at the ranch, including one who allegedly exposed himself and showed pictures of male genitalia on his cellphone.
About a month after the suit was filed, Marin was fired. His letter of dismissal did not mention sexual harassment allegations – company lawyers said they still have no proof of the women’s claims. Instead, the letter said he was let go because the company had evidence he had embezzled money.
A father of seven daughters who emigrated from Mexico in the early 1970s by crawling through a sewer tunnel, Marin emphatically denies stealing from the company. He said the apartment buildings and houses he owns around Sunnyside – valued at more than $1.8 million – are the product of hard work and sound investment decisions.
“Had to be somebody else because (it was) not me,” Marin said. “I can never betray the company.”
Lawyers for Evans Fruit argued that the women who have accused the company of wrongdoing were motivated by financial gain.
“The claimants need money, and you may consider that that is a powerful incentive to invent or exaggerate their stories,” attorney Carolyn Cairns said at the trial. “These folks are poor. For the most part, they’re uneducated, and their career paths, frankly, are not bright. This is their chance to get some extra money, and they’re grabbing the brass ring.”
But women who did not participate in the lawsuit also have accused Marin of making sexual advances.
One of those women – who is mentioned repeatedly as a Marin target in court filings – trembled as she drove down Cemetery Road, four miles from the Evans Fruit orchard. Turning onto a fire road, she pointed to a house where Marin and his family now live. She said that when she was a 17-year-old employee, he offered to let her live there for free if she would bear him a son. She refused.
A 39-year-old woman who worked at Evans Fruit eight years ago said in an interview that Marin would order her into his truck, where he would flirt and touch her legs in a way that upset her. If she defied him, she would be fired, she said.
“I know more women who have gone through this and don’t want to talk,” she said. “They’re scared. But we have to talk so that there is justice and the bosses don’t keep doing these things.”
In an interview, Marin said these claims are tall tales that have been passed around the ranch by embittered employees.
“Everyone knows each other,” he said. “And the bad people talk to other people, and people that don’t even know me start talking bad about me.”
Monahan, the company’s lawyer, said Evans Fruit never was confronted with definitive proof of sexual harassment at its Sunnyside orchard, and if it had been, the owners would have acted immediately.
By the trial date, the number of former Evans Fruit workers who remained in the case had dropped from 26 to 15. Some women could not be located. The judge ruled that the others had not been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.
In the end, 14 women testified about being groped, verbally harassed and attacked at the Sunnyside ranch. Most of the allegations were lodged against Marin, who denied them all.
“I would never do that,” he said repeatedly at the trial.
In April, the jury – seven men and two women – found in favor of Evans Fruit. The jury members determined that the women, including Abarca, had not been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment. And, they decided, even if a hostile work environment had been proven, Evans Fruit was not liable because Marin was not found to be “a proxy for Evans Fruit” and the other alleged harassers were not technically supervisors.
When the verdict came down, the claimants who attended the final day and their lawyers sat in stunned silence in the courtroom.
“I was very sad because I felt they gave to the supervisors a free pass to do whatever they want with women, that there was no law to punish them,” said Danelia Barajas, one of the women who claimed Marin groped her in his truck.
But members of the jury nonetheless believed there was something happening in the orchard.
Bill Huntington, a juror from Walla Walla, said the jury “felt pretty much that there was some level of harassment,” though the women’s lawyers didn’t prove it to the legal standard.
“It’s not so much that we believed Juan Marin,” Huntington said. “But their (the women’s) stories lacked consistency. I hope the Evanses will realize that they need to be more vigilant in their sexual harassment policies. They trusted Juan Marin, and they didn’t think it could happen. They were a little too reliant on him.”
Even the Evans Fruit lawyers concede Marin’s stories have not always been consistent.
“Juan Marin has told a number of different stories, and it’s difficult to figure out what happened,” Monahan said. “But you can’t make these broad assertions that Juan Marin is a bad person and sexual harassment occurred and therefore find the company liable.”
The case is not over yet. Aside from its request for a new trial, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A separate case against Marin, filed by three of the women in the federal case, is moving forward in federal court based on alleged violations of state laws.
But the trial was a sweeping victory for the company.
After they got word of the verdict, the Evanses were jubilant as they stood in the parking lot across from the courthouse.
“It is a great win,” Bill Evans said. “It all comes down to accountability and credibility.”
Before getting into his car, the jury foreman, Cameron Fischer, suggested to the Evanses that they should modernize their operations by hiring a professional human resources staffer.
“You have to get on with the times and with the way things are run today,” said Fischer, a former state workplace safety and health officer.
The couple thanked him and then drove to a Dairy Queen, where they celebrated over ice cream.
Creating Anti-harassment Policies
Throughout the trial, the Evans Fruit lawyers argued that the company should not be held responsible for the alleged harassment because Bill and Jeannette Evans could not have known about it because no one complained to them.
Because the Evanses run a business over thousands of acres, “they wanted their employees to know that if they’re out there in the orchard and the Evanses aren’t around, that they can still come to the Evanses and tell them what their problem is,” Evans Fruit attorney Cairns said at trial.
Cairns noted for the jury that some people did go to the Evanses with concerns about their supervisors or paychecks, but they were silent when it came to sexual harassment.
The women countered in court that they didn’t think they could complain because Marin was their foreman. Some said they thought raising the issue would get them fired, or they said nobody would believe them because Marin bragged that the Evanses loved him more than their own son. Others said they were embarrassed to discuss these types of issues with the owners.
The growers’ role in ferreting out sexual harassment became a key question in the Evans Fruit trial, and it’s a problem that vexes agribusiness across the country.
“If I’m the grower and I have my foreman supervising, and he’s misbehaving and I don’t know what’s going on, at the end of the day, I’m responsible,” said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, which represents agricultural businesses in five states. “But if the worker is being controlled by somebody who has an upper hand, how is a grower going to know that?”
Sexual harassment policies and complaint procedures can help, but agricultural enterprises don’t always operate on the cutting edge of human resources practices.
Gail Wadsworth, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, said some growers are focused on farming and might not have the capacity or awareness to implement policies on sexual harassment.
“There is a tendency to look at farming businesses as being different from other businesses, and that’s rooted in this concept of the agrarian ideal in the U.S.,” Wadsworth said. “But I do think that farms need to create a corporate culture to include safety for women.”
For instance, in the case of the Oregon tree farm supervisor who was accused of raping a female worker while holding gardening shears to her throat, the grower testified that the company didn’t have a sexual harassment policy because “we’re just farmers.”
Likewise, Bill and Jeannette Evans said at their company’s trial that they didn’t think they had needed a sexual harassment policy before 2008, because the law doesn’t require it and because the company is guided by common sense and respect for its workers.
Sexual harassment policies and training are not mandatory in many states. California, Connecticut and Maine have instituted laws that require sexual harassment seminars for supervisors.
Joe Del Bosque, a California farmworker-turned-grower, said the culture in the fields has changed since he started harvesting cantaloupes as a 10-year-old during summer breaks.
“In the ’70s, it (sexual harassment) might have been more common,” he said. “You knew that when it’s cantaloupe season, there are going to be young women coming, and it’s open season.”
Now, “we’ve taken a new attitude,” he said. “We take these things seriously, and our people understand that.”
As chairman of the workplace safety organization AgSafe, Del Bosque has come to champion sexual harassment prevention. AgSafe helps growers, packinghouse bosses and labor contractors follow California law by providing regular sexual harassment training.
During a meeting in a Fresno hotel conference room in December attended by CIR and IRP, farm labor contractor Josh Beas took careful notes as Amy Wolfe, AgSafe’s president and CEO, clicked through a series of slides.
She encouraged attendees to create a sexual harassment policy, hold supervisors accountable, conduct random inspections and document any problems that arise. It’s about “creating a culture where people can come to work and do the job they were hired to do and people treat each other with respect and dignity,” she said.
But the message doesn’t always travel well with some managers in the industry.
From the back row, Ralph Collazo, who runs a Southern California packinghouse, offered running commentary on the proceedings. As Wolfe worked her way through the presentation, Collazo cracked jokes.
“I want a girl to sexually harass me,” he quipped to the people near him. Collazo did not return calls for comment.
When Wolfe offered some real-world case studies, such as the story of a farmworker who was repeatedly raped by her supervisor, he sounded skeptical.
“She was eating eggs and bacon,” he said, implying that the sex was consensual, “and then she decided she didn’t like it.”
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