A Walla Walla County berry farm must pay a $350,000 fine and submit to other penalties stemming from years of sexual assault and harassment committed by a farm manager against at least four female employees, the state Attorney General’s Office announced Monday.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the action Monday against Great Columbia Berry Farms, a 136-acre blueberry operation in Burbank. Ferguson said Jose Luis Contreras Ramirez, a farm manager, raped at least one female worker and sexually harassed several others for at least seven years, all while retaliating against those who spoke out against his conduct.
The civil penalties come after criminal proceedings that saw Contreras Ramirez plead guilty in November to three counts of felony assault. He was initially charged in October 2019 with two counts of second-degree rape.
The Attorney General’s Office said the $350,000 will be distributed directly to the women victimized by Contreras Ramirez, with the exact amounts determined by the nature and extent of the harm they experienced.
“Companies that know or should know that powerful managers are harassing and assaulting their employees, but do nothing to stop it, bear responsibility,” Ferguson said in a statement. “Agricultural workers deserve to be heard – and they deserve a safe work environment free from abuse.”
As per a consent decree filed in Walla Walla Superior Court, Great Columbia Berry Farms must adopt anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies and trainings as approved in advance by the Attorney General’s Office. Other mandates include required semi-annual reports and notifications to the attorney general regarding any sexual harassment, discrimination or retaliation complaints from employees.
Great Columbia Berry Farms is also barred from rehiring Contreras Ramirez.
The case was referred to the attorney general by the Northwest Justice Project, which learned of the sexual assault against one woman and sexual harassment against several others – including one of the Justice Project’s clients, according to Monday’s announcement.
As a manager at Great Columbia Berry Farms, Contreras Ramirez’s responsibilities included overseeing farm operations, hiring/firing employees and making job assignments, according to the state’s complaint.
Contreras Ramirez’s behavior extended from at least 2012 to 2019, during which he subjected female employees to unwelcome sexual conduct and forcibly raped one woman on at least two occasions while she was working, according to the attorney general’s office.
“After the assaults, he sent her to work in isolated areas of the farm, made her fix her own work equipment and made her work extra hours,” the Attorney General’s Office said in a statement. “She was afraid she would lose her job if she reported Contreras because – though she was later able to get her job back – he had fired her in the past for refusing his advances.”
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