Chief Orchards Sued by EEOC for Sexual Harassment, Constructive Discharge

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SEATTLE —Chief Orchards, a tree fruit business based in Yakima, Washington, violated federal law by allowing a Latina agricultural worker to suffer egregious sexual harassment until she felt forced to quit, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit filed in federal court today.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, in 2017 a co-worker began sexually harassing Kristian Gonzalez, employed by Chief Orchards as a general laborer since 2015. On a daily basis, he would make comments about her body and her underwear, tell other workers that she was going to be “his,” and touched her without her permission. Gonzalez felt unsafe and changed her routines to avoid any contact with the co-worker.

Although she reported the conduct to her supervisor as soon as the harassment started, Chief Orchards failed to address the problem—in fact, after Gonzalez spoke up, her co-worker escalated his harassment. When Gonzalez spoke again to the company’s foreman at the end of 2017, he told her to just “hold on for a couple more weeks” until the end of the picking season. But when the harassment continued and became more aggressive in 2018, her employer still refused to take action to protect Gonzalez or stop the harassment. Out of concern for her own safety, Gonzalez was forced to quit her job in September 2018.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to investigate and take steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The EEOC filed its lawsuit (EEOC v. Chief Orchard Services, Case No. 1:21-cv-03125) in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. EEOC seeks lost wages, monetary damages including compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages, and injunctive relief including training in both Spanish and English on combatting sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Every worker has a right to a workplace free from sexual harassment,” said Nancy Sienko, acting district director for the EEOC’s San Francisco District, which includes Washington State.  “When an employer permits sexual harassment to render the workplace so intolerable that an employee has no choice but to quit, it makes employees feel unsafe and leads to lower productivity. It is also against the law, and the EEOC will hold employers accountable.”

EEOC Senior Trial Attorney May Che said, “We have seen how farmworkers, a group that is so often comprised of immigrant women working in isolated areas, are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.  The EEOC has made a priority of defending the civil rights of vulnerable workers and will seek the full extent of legal relief for Ms. Gonzalez.”

Chief Orchards Services, LLC is based in Yakima and provides fruit-picking services to five orchards that are owned by its own corporate shareholders. Most of its employees, including Ms. Gonzalez, are seasonal agricultural workers.

The EEOC’s Seattle Field Office has jurisdiction over Eastern Washington.

The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information is available at www.eeoc.gov.  Stay connected with the latest EEOC news by subscribing to our email updates.

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