OXNARD — Federal officials have been asked to investigate allegations that Nabisco Foods is selling its Oxnard plant and moving some of its key local operations to the East Coast in retaliation for the filing of sex discrimination complaints against the company.
Lawyers representing dozens of current and former Nabisco employees said they have sent the retaliation charges to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, asking for the probe on behalf of all workers at the factory here, which bottles the world's supply of A1 Steak Sauce and Grey Poupon mustard.
The commission's investigation into the initial sex discrimination complaints filed last year against Nabisco's Oxnard facility determined that there was evidence to support claims that the company restricted the bathroom privileges of women but allowed men to go whenever they wanted, according to documents obtained by The Times.
"I have concluded that the evidence is sufficient to establish a violation of the [federal] statute" prohibiting discrimination, EEOC District Director Dorothy J. Porter wrote in response to more than 30 complaints filed with her agency.
The EEOC has scheduled a conciliation meeting this week between Nabisco and lawyers representing the workers.
Nabisco officials deny the sex discrimination complaints.
Furthermore, they say the retaliation claims are groundless, adding that a decision confirmed last week to sell the Oxnard plant, including the company's line of Ortega Mexican foods, and shift production of A1 Steak Sauce and Grey Poupon mustard to Maryland had nothing to do with the sex discrimination complaints or a subsequent lawsuit lodged against the company.
"This was strictly a business deal," said Caroline Fee, a spokeswoman at Nabisco headquarters in New Jersey. "It has been in the works for a long time . . . more than a couple of years."
Fee confirmed that the company had received some notices of determination on the initial sex discrimination complaints from the EEOC, but declined to say how many or to comment on their contents. She said Nabisco representatives will attend this week's conciliation meeting.
But lawyers representing the current and former Nabisco employees allege that Nabisco's decision to shut down most of its local operation represents a retaliatory strike against their clients.
"We are very disturbed that after women at Nabisco's Oxnard plant complained about terrible working conditions, Nabisco's next major announcement with respect to those workers . . . was to put them out of work," said lead attorney Paul Strauss, with the Chicago-based law firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland.
"I find Nabisco's business reasons difficult to believe," Strauss said. "I should add that, while of course this is very discouraging and unpleasant news for the workers, it doesn't affect the ongoing lawsuit one bit."
Last year, more than 30 mostly seasonal employees at Nabisco's Oxnard plant filed sex discrimination complaints against the company, alleging that managers unduly restricted restroom privileges of female employees.
Some of the assembly-line workers said the restrictions were so prohibitive that they were forced to wear diapers on the job or suffered bladder infections because they were forbidden to go to the bathroom when needed.
In March, lawyers filed a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against the company on behalf of the female employees. That suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
Since then, some of the workers have told their story to a national audience on ABC's "20/20" news show. Some no longer work at the plant. And others who have returned to the food processing line say they have received a chilly reception from some co-workers who blame them for Nabisco's decision to leave town.
"There is conflict at work," said Jennie Vargas, a 28-year employee and one of three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. "Some are angry at us for bringing this lawsuit. But they know what we are saying is the truth. They lived it too."
In addition to the legal battle, there is also a campaign to generate public support for the employees.
Teamsters Local 186, which represents many of the company's workers, has staged rallies and prayer vigils outside the Nabisco plant and at Oxnard City Hall to try to counteract the company's recent moves.
Meanwhile, the lawyers representing the women at the plant said they believe they can establish a link between Nabisco's recent moves and the long-running labor dispute.
Although only a few of those who filed complaints will become unemployed directly as a result of the company's move out of state, the lawyers say many more stand to lose jobs. Because most of those who complained are seasonal laborers, the lawyers say, they are likely to be displaced by year-round employees who lose A1 or Grey Poupon jobs.
"The EEOC has said all along that they were going to be watching for retaliation," said Oxnard attorney Gregory Ramirez, a member of the team of attorneys on the case. "Sure enough, nine months later we have women worried about losing their jobs."
EEOC spokesman Michael Widomski in Washington said he could not comment on the sex discrimination complaints or on the retaliation charges lodged with the federal agency.
But he said if a retaliation charge has merit, the EEOC could get a court order temporarily blocking a company's move until the issues are resolved.