Ostrom Mushroom Farm discriminated against female workers, Washington residents by intentionally replacing them with male guest workers from Mexico
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced a Sunnyside mushroom farm will pay $3.4 million to resolve a lawsuit asserting unfair, deceptive and discriminatory actions against female farmworkers and Washington-based workers.
Ferguson will use all of the money to pay farmworkers affected by Ostrom’s illegal conduct. The Attorney General’s Office estimates more than 170 farmworkers are eligible for compensation.
If you worked at Ostrom and believe you should be part of this claims process, please contact the Civil Rights Division by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 1-833-660-4877, and selecting Option 5.
Ferguson filed the lawsuit in Yakima County Superior Court in August 2022, after an investigation by his office revealed that Ostrom had been discriminating against its workers for over a year based on their sex and immigration status. Ostrom fired its largely female and Washington-based workforce and replaced them with male foreign guest workers hired through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program, in violation of the Washington Law Against Discrimination.
Ostrom invented pretextual reasons to discipline, terminate and refuse employment to these workers. Ostrom also placed job advertisements that misrepresented work requirements and wages, in violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act. When workers complained about the unlawful treatment, Ostrom retaliated against the employees who spoke up.
“Ostrom’s systematic discrimination was calculated to force out female and Washington-based employees,” Ferguson said. “I want to thank the workers who spoke out against this discrimination in the face of so much danger and stood up for their rights. My team fought for them and today we secured an important victory.”
While the lawsuit was still pending, Ostrom sold its mushroom facility to Windmill Farms, which is now operating the farm. The court order requires Windmill Farms to take measures designed to protect employees from any future misconduct, including prohibiting the company from:
- Misrepresenting to current and prospective employees the terms and conditions of employment;
- Applying more stringent requirements to domestic employees than to workers hired through the H-2A system;
- Failing to hire, discriminating against or terminating employees on the basis of sex, citizenship, immigration status or other protected categories under the Washington Law Against Discrimination; and
- Retaliating against employees who make claims about discrimination.
Though Ostrom ceased operating, the court order will require Ostrom to adopt the same policies if it resumes operations in Washington state during the next three years.
Abuse of the H-2A visa system
In mid-2021, Ostrom hired new management to improve its production. This new management believed Ostrom needed to replace its largely female workforce because its female workers had childcare obligations and could not work late hours or weekends. Ostrom’s management decided to replace its domestic workforce with workers from the H-2A guest worker program.
The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program allows employers to hire seasonal agricultural workers who come to the U.S. alone and leave their families behind. H-2A workers are brought from other countries to work for a specific employer — meaning if they leave that employer, they must also leave the country. For Ostrom, this meant that the Mexican guest workers they recruited and hired would work whatever hours Ostrom told them to work.
The H-2A program is intended only for employers who face a shortage of domestic laborers. Employers cannot apply for this program unless they can show that there is a shortage of workers located in their region who are willing, qualified and able to work. In order to demonstrate this “shortage” of domestic workers, Ostrom fired its domestic workforce and refused to hire Washington residents who wanted to work for Ostrom in the Yakima area.
Ostrom discriminated against its female and U.S.-based workers
Before April 2021, the Sunnyside facility employed an average of 117 workers from the local community and 87% of its workforce was female. By April 2022, Ostrom had hired 65 H-2A guest workers — 63 of them were male — to replace its majority-female, Washington-based workforce. Once Ostrom began hiring H-2A guest workers, it employed approximately 50 Washington workers, which reduced the average number of female workers by over 60%.
At the same time that it was firing its female workforce, a lead picker who worked at Ostrom posted to a Facebook group for Yakima-based farmworkers seeking “only males” to apply for Ostrom mushroom picking jobs. Managers also increased production demands on workers, pushing many female and Washington-based workers to find different jobs because they feared being disciplined or fired.
During its investigation, the Attorney General’s Office found trends showing that Ostrom fired and disciplined its Yakima-area female workers for failing to meet production requirements at higher rates than its male workers. This happened despite the fact that, on average, female workers picked more mushrooms than their male co-workers.
Ostrom retaliated against workers who spoke out
Beginning in June 2022 Ostrom workers began voicing concerns to company leaders regarding unfair and discriminatory workplace conditions at the Sunnyside facility.
Instead of addressing these concerns, Ostrom’s managers retaliated against the workers who spoke out. Retaliating against employees for speaking up against discrimination violates the Washington Law Against Discrimination.
One harvesting room manager physically assaulted a female worker with a metal cart immediately after she met with Ostrom’s management and expressed her concerns about workplace conditions.
The retaliation also included unfounded discipline and warnings targeting the workers leading the efforts to oppose Ostrom’s discriminatory practices.
Assistant Attorneys General Alfredo González Benítez, Teri Healy and Emily C. Nelson, Investigator Supervisor Alma Poletti, and Legal Assistant Anna Alfonso of the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division led the case for the Attorney General’s Office. Organizers with the United Farm Workers of America, along with legal advocacy nonprofits Columbia Legal Services and the Northwest Justice Project, alerted Ferguson’s Civil Rights Division to the case.
Ferguson created the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washingtonians by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Ferguson named the division 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.
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Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.email@example.com
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