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Bias Issues Cited in Jobs Suit

The supervisor of a fruit-packing company and two contractors are accused of civil rights violations, including discrimination.

September 20, 2003|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued a San Joaquin County fruit-packing company and two contractors for allegedly discriminating against 13 workers after a manager allegedly called them "stupid" and "lazy Mexicans."

The lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, says Prima Frutta packing manager Tim Sambado disparaged the 11 women and two men during the 1999-2001 cherry-packing seasons at the Linden plant. The suit alleges that, when the workers complained to their supervisors, the bosses did nothing to stop it.

The suit further alleges that one worker, Diana Cervantes, was fired after she told a supervisor about the incidents.

Besides Prima Frutta, the suit also names the two labor contractors, J. Jesus Gonzalez LLC of Stockton and Ag West of Clements.

Sambado did not return phone calls seeking comment. Efforts to reach the contractors were unsuccessful.

The commission charges that the companies violated the employees' civil rights by subjecting them to sex discrimination, harassment based on national origin and, in Cervantes' case, retaliation by firing her after she complained.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages for the workers.

"It's very egregious in the sense that a top manager is making racial and ethnic slurs daily to employees," said William R. Tamayo, regional attorney for the equal employment commission. "They complained several times to supervisors and nothing was done. The law says workers don't have to put up with this behavior."

He said the commission is "very concerned because agriculture is a large industry in California."

This is the ninth lawsuit brought against an agricultural employer in the state in the last five years by the commission, said Linda Li, program analyst with the agency. The others involved allegations of sexual harassment.

In the latest case, "stupid Mexicans" and "lazy Mexicans," were among the slurs with which the workers were addressed, according to a written statement by the commission.

Tamayo said that, when Cervantes complained of the treatment to another supervisor, "they pulled her off the line and fired her."

"She complained that Mexican women ... were talked about in a derogatory manner," he added.

The manager "treated us worse than animals because we were Mexican," one worker said, according to the commission's written statement.

The commission quoted another worker as saying, "I was afraid that he would take his belt off and whip me with it."

Although the commission is alleging that Sambado was the primary harasser, "other managers and supervisors were very aware of the harassment, but failed to take action," Tamayo said.

The three companies rejected efforts to settle the case before the lawsuit was filed, Tamayo said.

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