A federal judge has allowed a sex discrimination suit originally filed on behalf of seven Ventura County women against a lemon packinghouse to include more female workers.
The ruling issued last week by U. S. District Judge David V. Kenyon in Los Angeles allows the class-action suit against the Oxnard Lemon Co. to cover women who had worked or sought work at the packinghouse as far back as December, 1987.
California Rural Legal Assistance attorney Lee Pliscou said the ruling would increase the number of women who may be eligible to file damage claims if the suit is successful.
Hundreds of women could be entitled to back wages, he said.
"This is the cornerstone of the lawsuit, really," Pliscou said. Had the judge not taken the action, he said, "we potentially would have had a smaller lawsuit, both in scope and in the number of women we are able to represent."
An attorney and a manager for Oxnard Lemon Co. were unavailable for comment.
The suit, filed in December by CRLA and a Chicago-based law firm, accuses Oxnard Lemon Co. of refusing to hire or promote female employees to higher-paid positions held by men.
The company also gave the women fewer work hours than its male employees, the suit said.
The sex bias suit is the second to be filed against a local citrus packinghouse in the past five years.
In 1990, U. S. District Judge John G. Davies ruled that Saticoy Lemon Assn. had violated federal anti-discrimination laws and ordered the packinghouse to halt its discriminatory practices.
The packinghouse agreed to pay $550,000 to 76 female employees who were part of the class-action lawsuit.
Pliscou said the complaints against Oxnard Lemon Co. are similar to those at Saticoy. "We're traversing known waters here," he said. "The practices that exist at Oxnard Lemon Co. are not unique."
One of the women seeking damages from the Oxnard Lemon packinghouse is Frances Guzman.
Guzman, 41, of Oxnard, said she worked for the company for 17 years sorting and packing lemons, but was denied a promotion to a job as a forklift operator. Those jobs were called "men's work" by her bosses, she said.
"We'd go to the office and ask why we can't do this job or that job," Guzman said. "They would say, 'We'll see,' and they never gave us a straight answer."
Last year, after Guzman and others filed discrimination complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the company promoted a woman to the job.
Guzman, who still works as a general laborer at the company and is paid $7.10 an hour, said she hopes that the lawsuit will send a strong message to the company.
"I want them to give us the same opportunity they gave the men," she said.