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Grape Grower Agrees to Settle EEOC Sexual Harassment Case

Rivera Vineyards will pay nearly $1.1 million to 57 employees who filed complaints.

June 16, 2005|Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

When Rosario Ochoa Taylor came to the United States from Mexico 18 years ago, she started out as a day laborer in the broccoli fields near Calexico, Calif., before moving north to work in the vineyards around Coachella.

Making $6.25 an hour at Rivera Vineyards, Taylor and her husband worked in the fields with hopes of a better life for their three children. But after eight years, Taylor alleges, her supervisor began sexually harassing her -- leering, making lewd comments and, on one occasion, groping her as she knelt before a grapevine.

Taylor was one of 57 Rivera employees who eventually took their complaints to federal officials, who said Wednesday that the grape grower had agreed to pay nearly $1.1 million to settle allegations of sexual harassment, including rape; retaliation for filing complaints; and gender segregation on the job. Some of the complaints date to 1989.

"This case should serve as a wake-up call to the agribusiness industry," said Eric Dreiband, general counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued Rivera Vineyards in 2003 on behalf of the workers in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. "Farmworkers are among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in our nation."

The money will be divided among the 57 workers, with more being paid to employees who claimed to have suffered the most serious abuse.

In reaching the deal, which still must be approved by the court, Rivera Vineyards denied any wrongdoing. Shawn Caine, one of Rivera's lawyers, said the family-owned company settled to avoid a costly legal battle.

As part of the settlement, Rivera agreed to provide extensive training programs in Spanish and English on harassment and discrimination to all its employees. Rivera also agreed to rehire many of the workers involved in the suit. The vineyard, which produces table grapes and juice, has a permanent staff of about 20, but in peak season expands its workforce to as many as 2,000.

Like many of the workers involved in the suit, Taylor says she continues to do field work, but for a different company.

"I am here because if anyone else is experiencing what I went through, I don't want them to hide anymore," Taylor, choking back tears, said through an interpreter.

EEOC officials said the agency's investigation of Rivera was part of a larger effort to quell what they see as a growing problem of sexual harassment of the workers -- largely female and Latino -- who toil in the fields of California.

EEOC lawyers in Southern California say they have seen an increase in recent years in sexual harassment and job retaliation complaints from the agricultural industry, where women usually make up a small percentage of the workforce.

Santos Albarran, an outreach manager for the EEOC, said that many of the fieldworkers tolerate abuse for fear of losing their jobs.

"I talk to many of the farmworkers and I hear stories that are just chilling," he said.

Last fall, the state Legislature passed a law that requires California companies with 50 or more employees to provide training in sexual harassment issues to their staff.

George Daniels, an executive with the Farm Employers Labor Service, a subsidiary of the California Farm Bureau Federation, says that his office has received a flood of calls from employers who want to sign up for training.

"I have noticed that [farm] employers want to do the right thing," said Daniels. Agricultural work is similar to other male-dominated work environments such as construction or the military where women are potentially vulnerable to sexual harassment, he said.

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