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$1.05 Million Settles Farmworkers' Case
Women Alleged Sexual Harassment

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005; Page D03

A class of Latino farmworkers will share $1.05 million, in one of the largest discrimination settlements in the agriculture industry. The settlement stems from a 2003 lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Virginia Mejia, Rosario Taylor and several dozen other women against Rivera Vineyards in California's Coachella Valley.

The workers, mostly Hispanic women, were allegedly sexually harassed, including one who said she was raped. When one longtime employee complained about the harassment, she and her crew were terminated. Women also complained they were denied certain job opportunities based on their gender. The complaints went as far back as 1989.

Immigrant workers in particular often feel they can do nothing about harassment or other employment issues, said Santos Albarran, outreach manager for the EEOC in Los Angeles.

"In the farmworker industry, there is fear of retaliation," Albarran said. "A lot has to do with the language barrier, for one. The other is stress about government agencies. Because it's such a close-knit industry, they can be blackballed."

The women who initiated the suit approached Albarran in 2001 after he gave a presentation about workers' rights near Rivera Vineyards, he said.

In addition to the monetary settlement for the class, which now includes 37 women but may expand to cover as many as 50, the company agreed to reinstate workers who were wrongfully terminated, hire an outside consultant to handle harassment complaints, implement anti-discrimination policies, provide training to managers and employees, and create hiring goals to move women into positions typically filled by men.

Rivera Vineyards is one of the largest growers and packers of table grapes in Southern California.

The company denied the allegations, according to Shawn Caine, who defended the company in the proceeding, and general business counsel and chief negotiator Charles Ellis.

"Rivera Vineyards made a practical business decision that the settlement terms presented an economic arrangement which, when balanced against the overall costs of completing the litigation process, was clearly advantageous. Moreover, while sincerely hurt and offended by the allegations, Rivera Vineyards' core beliefs and support for Title VII convinced them that the negotiated settlement would add considerable weight to the EEOC's cause at a cost benefit to all concerned when compared with litigation," Ellis said in a statement.