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Horning Brothers to pay $525K in workers’ sexual harassment case

The following is from the Northwest Justice Project:

WENATCHEE (Oct. 19, 2018) — Horning Brothers, LLC, an agricultural business in Quincy, will pay $525,000 to settle claims of sexual harassment after 10 of its female employees were harassed by the company’s foreman. Horning Brothers also agreed to distribute a sexual harassment policy in English and Spanish, provide a means for employees to report harassment in their primary language, and promptly investigate complaints. The case was brought by the Civil Rights Unit of the Washington Attorney General’s Office and five farmworker women represented by Northwest Justice Project.

Ten women allege they were sexually harassed by the foreman of Horning Brothers’ onion packing shed, Hermilo Cruz, who was responsible to hire and supervise the company’s seasonal employees. The foreman touched women’s buttocks and hips while they worked on the sorting line. He made sexual gestures, propositioned women, and commented about their bodies. He waited by the outdoor porta-potties, using the opportunity when women were alone to grope their breasts and attempt to kiss them. In December 2014, one employee decided she could no longer endure the foreman’s harassment and complained to Horning Brothers’ management. The manager responded that if she was uncomfortable, she could leave the job. She alleges the foreman retaliated against her for complaining until she had no choice but to quit.

Another woman sought legal help from Northwest Justice Project (NJP) after she attended a presentation about sexual harassment in the workplace and learned she had the right to complain. NJP helped her file a charge with the Washington Human Rights Commission notifying Horning Brothers that its foreman subjected her to propositions, sexual comments, and touching. In response, Horning Brothers did not investigate, provide any training, nor remove the foreman, who continued to harass employees, including a 19-year-old girl.

The Civil Rights Unit of the Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Office investigated the sexual harassment allegations and identified additional women harassed by Cruz. On April 25, 2017, the State of Washington filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Washington, State of Washington, et. al v. Horning Brothers, LLC et. al, asserting violations of state and federal law prohibiting sexual harassment, retaliation, and discriminatory hiring and discharge. Five farmworker women joined the lawsuit, represented by attorneys Alyson Dimmitt Gnam, Lola Velazquez, and Blanca Rodriguez of NJP. On Sept. 11, 2018, a federal judge made a pre-trial ruling that “Horning Brothers’ policy and actions were clearly insufficient to prevent and address the alleged sexual harassment.”

Horning Brothers entered into a Consent Decree with the State of Washington and five of the farmworker women and will pay $525,000 in compensation and attorney fees. The company must provide employees a way to report harassment in their primary language verbally, in writing, or anonymously. It must use a qualified and neutral interpreter to conduct investigations. The company will provide annual training to its owners, supervisors, and employees on sexual harassment and retaliation.

“Horning Brothers disregarded employees who complained about sexual harassment, leaving them no choice but to seek accountability through the legal system. Our clients acted courageously so that other women would have a safer workplace,” said Dimmitt Gnam, one of the farmworker women’s NJP attorneys. “This settlement sends a message to every employer — listen to employees who complain, act quickly to stop harassment, and put into place practices that prevent sexual harassment in the first place.”

“We suffer the most harassment in agricultural jobs. As women, we have the right to have a life of dignity. We are hardworking women, and we work to support our children, not to be humiliated in our jobs,” said one of the harassed employees, Roxana Rodriguez. Another stated, “I want to tell other women—you don’t have to stay silent when someone does something to you that you don’t like. There is someone who will listen to you and help you.”

“Women farmworkers were heard loud and clear today. Our clients gave the voiceless a voice,” said Ms. Velazquez, another NJP attorney. “Farmworkers should not be afraid to come forward and exercise their rights.”

Northwest Justice Project is a not-for-profit statewide law firm providing free civil legal assistance and representation to low-income people and communities in Washington. Civil legal aid serves low-income individuals with issues including as domestic violence, public benefits, wrongful eviction, and discrimination.

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