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Originally published Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 3:04 PM

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Settlement brings prevalence of farmworker abuse to light

Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, a yearlong investigation reveals persistent peril for women working in U.S. fields and food processing plants.

The Center for Investigative Reporting

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YAKIMA — For about six years as she labored alone in a hen house on an Eastern Washington egg farm, Maria said she was sexually abused repeatedly by her supervisor.

As often as twice a week, she told the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, she was forced to perform oral sex.

“For me, it wasn’t easy to work there,” the 35-year-old widow from Mexico said tearfully in an interview. “But nevertheless, I did it. I was in need. And I put up with a lot of things.”

The woman, who asked to be identified only as Maria, said she is the sole breadwinner for her 9-year-old daughter and diabetic mother, who live in Mexico.

Maria and four other workers at the National Food Corp. farm in Lind, Adams County, agreed on May 15 to a $650,000 settlement of a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed on their behalf by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In settling the case, the company denied any wrongdoing. The supervisor was fired from the company in 2011 but was not charged criminally.

Stories like those of Maria and her co-workers span the map.

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 U.S. fields and food processing plants.

These workers’ experiences go largely unheard and underreported. The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status — an estimated 50 to 75 percent of U.S. farmworkers immigrated illegally — make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report the crimes.

In partnership with PBS’ Frontline and television network Univision, reporters spent nearly a year reviewing thousands of pages of documents and crisscrossing the nation to hear workers’ stories of sexual assault.

Interviews with more than 100 government and law enforcement officials, lawyers and social-service providers reveal a portrait of low-wage immigrant laborers who remain silent about abuse out of shame, fear of deportation or losing a job, language barriers and ignorance of workplace laws.

“Sexual violence doesn’t happen unless there’s an imbalance of power,” said William Tamayo, a regional attorney for the EEOC. “And in the agricultural industry, the imbalance of power between perpetrator, company and the worker is probably the greatest.”

Since 1998, workers have filed 1,106 sexual harassment complaints with the commission against agricultural-related industries. The allegations range from verbal harassment to rape and include supervisors accused of preying on multiple victims.

Of these, the federal commission has filed lawsuits in 41 cases. More than 150 farm workers in these cases said they were sexually assaulted, harassed or abused.

In more than 80 percent of these cases, court records show, workers who complained to management said they were either demoted, fired or subjected to further abuse.

Reporters combed through the 41 lawsuits — which included some complaints that had been investigated by law enforcement — and could not find a single case in which the men accused of sexual assault or rape had been criminally charged.

That’s what happened in Maria’s case in Eastern Washington.

The sheriff’s office investigated the case by interviewing Maria and the supervisor, Larry Wippert Jr.

Wippert, who was fired from National Food in 2011 for violating company policies, told sheriff’s detectives he did not sexually assault Maria. The former supervisor did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Adams County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Flyckt, whose office reviewed the allegations, declined to file rape or sexual assault charges. “He-said-she-said” cases are difficult to prosecute, Flyckt said.

Maria was one of about two dozen workers who met with Wippert’s supervisor, Scott Vessel, in 2009 to complain about working conditions at the farm, including sexual abuse. Two former workers — but not Maria — accused Wippert of sexually assaulting them, according to a review of Vessel’s meeting notes.

One woman said Wippert groped her upper thigh and badgered her for sex. The other said the supervisor grabbed her from behind and offered to give her sister a job in exchange for sex.

During a subsequent interview with an investigator from the EEOC, which enforces workplace anti-discrimination laws, Vessel said the complaints had not moved him to act.

“I just listened to what they had to say and then the meeting ended and they left,” he told the commission investigator. “Yes, I did nothing.” Vessel did not return calls seeking comment.

In 2010, Maria and four other workers who had attended the meeting lost their jobs. They alleged in the EEOC case, which had been set for trial in U.S. District Court in Yakima this spring, that the company fired them in retaliation for reporting the sexual assaults and harassment.

Wippert, for his part, told the commission’s investigator that he fired the “problem employees” on Vessel’s instructions. In court filings, National Food said it terminated the workers for “performance-based reasons.”

After the federal commission began investigating National Food in 2010, the company sent a private investigator to offer compensation to some of the workers who had lodged complaints. Two female employees received undisclosed sums after they agreed not to participate in any suits against the company, according to redacted copies of the agreements.

The company denied the commission’s sexual harassment and retaliation allegations. An attorney for the company declined to comment. National Food President Brian Bookey did not return calls seeking comment.

In settling with the EEOC, National Food agreed to change its complaint procedures, institute sexual harassment training for management, apologize to the five workers, and not rehire Wippert. The workers also were represented by Columbia Legal Services, a legal-aid group.

Maria now takes seasonal work harvesting onions and grapes in Eastern Washington, which means the size of her paycheck is often dictated by the weather. She regularly sends money to her family in Mexico but has never told them what she said she had to do to keep her job tending chickens at National Food.

Speaking in Spanish, she said she decided to make her case public through the lawsuit because “there are a lot of women who remain silent.”

“We don’t speak because of fear,” she said. “I know that there are a lot of women who are going through the same thing. And if we can put a stop to it, we have to do it.”

Although Maria settled with her employer, other cases of alleged sexual abuse have not resulted in compensation for workers.

In a case that went to trial this spring in U.S. District Court in Yakima, 14 former workers at the Evans Fruit Co. testified they had been groped, assaulted or verbally harassed by a foreman or crew leader. Most of the sexual abuse and harassment complaints were lodged against foreman Juan Marin, who denied their claims.

After 12 days of testimony, the jury of seven men and two women found in favor of the company and determined that none of the women had been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.

Bill Huntington, a juror from Walla Walla, said the jury felt workers suffered some level of harassment but that the EEOC, which brought the case, 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.”

Evans Fruit attorney Brendan Monahan said that the company could not substantiate the claims of sexual harassment but noted that several agricultural employers in Washington have instituted sexual harassment policies since the EEOC brought the case.

“This case,” he said, “has fundamentally changed the entire industry.”

Grace Rubenstein of CIR contributed to this report. More about the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting at www.cironline.org

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