AG alleges Quincy onion-packing shed retaliated against women who reported mistreatment
SPOKANE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today that he is accusing a Quincy agricultural company and one of its managers of violating Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Washington Law Against Discrimination over the sexual harassment of female workers, discriminatory hiring practices and retaliation against workers who reported the improper conduct.
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, Ferguson alleges that the operation and policies of the Grant County company, Horning Brothers LLC, allowed one of its foremen, Hermilo Cruz, to sexually harass and discriminate against female employees for several years.
The complaint alleges that Horning Brothers knew or should have known about Cruz’s conduct.
The complaint accuses the company and Cruz of retaliating against employees who rejected Cruz’s advances or complained about his conduct. Employees who reported the conduct were reprimanded, discharged or not rehired the following season.
“Low-wage agricultural workers are part of a vulnerable population with limited resources. They deserve to be heard,” Ferguson said. “No woman should be forced to accept sexual harassment as a condition of her employment.”
As of 2015, there were nearly 100,000 agricultural workers in Washington state, with women comprising about 28 percent of them. Sexual harassment in the agricultural industry is “an occupational hazard” that has a profound impact on women’s ability to work safely and productively in the industry, according to the University of Washington School of Public Health’s Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety & Health Center.
Horning Brothers operates an onion packing shed in Quincy, where Cruz is the foreman. The complaint alleges that since at least 2012, the company and Cruz only hired women to sort onions on the packing line, and limited the hiring of women for other positions.
The Attorney General’s investigation began last year, and involved interviews with multiple witnesses and victims.
The case was referred to the AGO by the Northwest Justice Project.
Multiple sorters were allegedly subjected to unwelcome, and sometimes severe and pervasive sexual advances from Cruz, including requests for sex, comments about their appearance, overt sexual gestures, groping and unwanted touching. The complaint also alleges that Cruz required or attempted to require some women to have sex with him to ensure they would continue to be employed.
Cruz and Horning Brothers also are accused of reprimanding, firing or failing to rehire employees who rejected Cruz’s advances or complained to others — including the owners of the company — about the foreman’s behavior.
The Attorney General’s Office is accusing the company and Cruz of multiple violations of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Washington Law Against Discrimination for discriminatory and segregated hiring practices, sexual harassment, aiding and abetting illegal conduct and retaliation against employees.
The complaint seeks court orders to halt the illegal practices, damages for victims and costs and fees for the state’s lawsuit.
Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit Chief Colleen Melody and Assistant Attorney General Patricio Marquez are leading the case. Any person who believes they have information about this case should contact the Civil Rights Unit at 1-844-375-1217 or by email at email@example.com.
The Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit was created in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washington residents by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. It is named for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the state of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.
The Washington Law Against Discrimination prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability or honorably discharged veteran or military status.
More information about Washington’s civil rights laws in employment is available at http://www.hum.wa.gov/employment. Individuals who believe they have been victims of employment discrimination can file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission at http://www.hum.wa.gov/discrimination-complaint or can contact the Office of the Attorney General at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Spanish version of this release is available here.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov