Believed to be largest civil rights resolution for Washington state ever
SPOKANE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today that Horning Brothers, LLC, a Quincy-based agricultural company, will pay $525,000 in a civil rights enforcement action claiming sexual harassment of multiple female agricultural workers, discriminatory hiring and sex-segregated employment practices and retaliation against workers who reported the improper conduct.
The women affected by this conduct will receive compensation for their harms. The company must also adopt a non-discrimination and anti-retaliation policy approved by the Attorney General’s Office, in addition to other injunctive relief.
The Northwest Justice Project, who worked on the case with the Attorney General’s Office, referred the case and represented five of the workers who intervened as plaintiffs.
“Horning Brothers received, and ignored, multiple notices over several years that sexual harassment was a problem at its company,” Ferguson said. “Today’s result forces a culture change at Horning Brothers by bringing justice to the women who were harassed and protecting future employees.”
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in 2017, Ferguson asserted that the operation and policies of Horning Brothers allowed its foreman, Hermilo Cruz, to sexually harass and discriminate against female employees for several years. Cruz and the company retaliated against employees who rejected Cruz’s advances or complained about his conduct.
The consent decree, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, requires Horning Brothers to:
- Pay $525,000 to the Attorney General’s Office to compensate workers harmed by harassment and retaliation, and for recovery of fees and costs incurred by the Northwest Justice Project
- Prohibit Cruz from holding any supervisory position at Horning Brothers
- Implement employee complaint procedures for reporting harassment, discrimination and retaliation
- Institute investigative procedures to ensure proper investigations of complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation
- Provide semi-annual reporting to the Attorney General’s Office and notify the Attorney General of any complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation received from its employees
- Adopt a complete non-discrimination and anti-retaliation policy approved by the Attorney General’s Office
- Provide annual trainings to Horning Brothers’ management on their obligations under Title VII and the Washington Law Against Discrimination, and also provide training to its workforce
- Make new policies and procedures available to Horning Brothers’ seasonal and full-time workforce in both English and Spanish
The amount of compensation the women will receive will depend upon the nature and extent of their harassment, and the length of time they worked for Horning Brothers. The maximum that any individual harassed employee will receive is $98,000.
The consent decree still must be approved by a federal judge.
Horning Brothers had tried to evade responsibility for its foreman’s harassment, claiming that it had a sexual harassment policy that permitted workers to file complaints with company management.
On Sept. 11, 2018, Judge Thomas O. Rice granted Ferguson’s motion for partial summary judgment in the case. The court found that Horning Brothers’ “discrimination policy and reporting mechanism were ineffective in addressing and preventing sexual harassment,” and “Horning Brothers failed to act promptly after being notified of the alleged harassment” by one of the workers.
In its ruling, the court agreed with the Attorney General’s Office that there was “overwhelming evidence” of Cruz’s harassment such that “a reasonable jury could find that the alleged victims were subject to verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature, which was unwelcome and created an abusive working environment.”
Horning Brothers operated an onion-packing shed in Quincy, where Cruz was the foreman. The company employs eight to 10 full time employees and 24 to 40 seasonal workers. 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 in 2016 and involved interviews with multiple witnesses and victims.
Multiple sorters were 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.
Cruz controlled who got jobs in the onion-packing shed, which were highly sought after because of the difficulty of finding winter agricultural work in Grant County. Employees feared that resisting Cruz’s advances or reporting his behavior would cause them to lose their jobs. The evidence in the case showed that several women who tried to complain about Cruz were reprimanded, discharged or not rehired the following season.
As of 2015, there were nearly 100,000 agricultural workers in Washington state, with women comprising about 28 percent. Sexual harassment in the agricultural industry is “an occupational hazard” that has a profound impact on women’s ability to work safely and productively, according to the University of Washington School of Public Health’s Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety & Health Center.
Wing Luke Civil Rights Unit Chief Colleen Melody and Assistant Attorney General Patricio Marquez led the case.
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 Washington state 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 regarding 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 contact the Office of the Attorney General at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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.
Dan Jackson, Acting Communications Director, (360) 753-2716; DanJ1@atg.wa.gov