Equal employment board sues Hermiston farm

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldOctober 4, 2012 

A Hermiston farm that calls itself the country's largest onion grower has been sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for alleged gender-based harassment and retaliation.

River Point Farms is accused of violating federal law when a supervisor allegedly verbally abused a female seasonal worker and encouraged her husband's physical abuse of her for about five years, said the lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court in Pendleton, Ore.

The Herald was unable to reach anyone by phone Wednesday at the farm's headquarters.

The commission, a federal agency, investigated and found that the female worker "faced relentless verbal abuse from her male supervisor from 2005 to 2010," according to a news release from the commission.

"This is a harrowing case -- our investigation found that the supervisor would laughingly recount an incident at work where this worker was pregnant and hiding under a table, yet her husband kicked her so savagely in the stomach that she went to the hospital," Michael Baldonado, the commission's district director, said in a news release. "By law, employers must answer for the actions of their management and cannot allow this type of sexist and abusive behavior in the workplace."

Joaquina Ramirez's direct supervisor also made unwanted sexual comments and requests for sexual favors, according to court documents.

"My supervisor told me I was less than a man, that my husband should be allowed to beat me, and that I should put up with it because I am a woman," said Ramirez in a news release.

The supervisor also publicly encouraged Ramirez's husband, who also was her co-worker, to kill her, documents said.

Her husband attempted to kill her in September 2010, according to court documents. After he was arrested, the supervisor blamed Ramirez and laid her off. She was not rehired for months while others were hired instead.

This case is unusual in terms of a supervisor condoning and encouraging the husband's treatment of his wife, said Teri Healy, senior trial attorney at the commission's Seattle district office.

Ramirez has continued to work for River Point Farms off and on, Healy said.

The commission claims River Point Farms violated Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act by creating a hostile work environment for the employee and laying her off and not rehiring her in a timely manner because she complained about the discrimination, according to court documents.

Healy said the lawsuit sends a message to employers that they need to take responsibility for the actions of their supervisors and make sure workers who are being sexually or domestically assaulted have protection.

The commission is asking the court to order the Hermiston farm to carry out policies and programs that provide equal employment opportunities and to award an unspecified amount of damages to Ramirez.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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