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Packing house to pay $525K to settle sexual harassment case

In this Feb. 9, 2017 file photo, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle about a federal appeals court’s refusal to reinstate President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Donald Trump promised to shake up Washington. And in his first 100 days, he’s certainly followed through. Between the fixation on the inauguration crowd size, his tweets that he had been wiretapped by his predecessor and the failed effort at health care reform, Trump’s honeymoon could hardly be described as blissful. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
In this Feb. 9, 2017 file photo, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle about a federal appeals court’s refusal to reinstate President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Donald Trump promised to shake up Washington. And in his first 100 days, he’s certainly followed through. Between the fixation on the inauguration crowd size, his tweets that he had been wiretapped by his predecessor and the failed effort at health care reform, Trump’s honeymoon could hardly be described as blissful. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Hal Bernton Seattle Times

QUINCY, Wash. – A Grant County vegetable-packing house will pay $525,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson alleging a supervisor groped, propositioned and retaliated against female workers over a period of years.

Ferguson says the settlement announced Thursday with Quincy-based Horning Brothers is believed to be the largest civil-rights resolution for the state in Washington history.

“This reflects how seriously we take this issue, and the terrible actions that were taken against these plaintiffs,” said Ferguson, who appeared in Yakima on Thursday.

The Attorney General’s lawsuit was filed in April 2017 in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington. It named Horning and supervisor Hermilo Cruz as defendants, and sought enforcement actions under the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act.

That lawsuit noted that there were more than 96,000 agriculture jobs in Washington in 2016. For women, who hold about 28 percent of those jobs, sexual harassment is an occupational hazard that “profoundly impacts” their ability to work safely in the industry, the lawsuit stated.

Cruz served as supervisor in an onion-packing shed that employed eight to 10 people full time and up to 40 seasonal workers. Since at least 2012, he hired only women to the packing line, according to the lawsuit.

The Attorney General’s investigation began in 2016, and was conducted with the Northwest Justice Project, which referred the case and represented five of workers.

The allegations against Cruz included “requiring or attempting to require that employees have sex with him” to keep their jobs, according to the initial complaint. The suit alleged that Cruz discharged those who opposed his unfair practices. The alleged behavior also included overt sexual gestures, comments about employees’ appearances and unwanted touching.

“They were told, ‘if you are happy, you are free to stay. If you are aren’t, you can leave,’ ” Ferguson said. “ ‘There are lots of other people who want your job.’ ”

On Sept. 11, 2018, Judge Thomas Rice granted a motion for partial summary judgment, ruling that Horning Brothers had an ineffective discrimination policy and did not act promptly after being notified about alleged harassment by a worker.

The settlement prohibits Cruz from working again in a supervisory position at Horning Brothers, requires the company to have employee-complaint procedures for reporting harassment and mandates semiannual reporting to the Attorney General’s Office.

Ferguson said that his civil-rights team has gained recognition for actions filed against the Trump administration, but it was “created for cases of this nature.”

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