A woman forced to have sex with a supervisor to keep her job with a large lettuce grower.
Close to 20 women groped or harassed while working at a vineyard.
Two sisters sexually assaulted by bosses at a tree farm, including one who had shears held to her throat.
Around the country, allegations such as these have led to lawsuits and settlements by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
At a forum Saturday in Yakima on sexual harassment of farm workers, the EEOC’s regional director said such cases demonstrate why it’s important to address the topic.
“Our job today is to ensure that women can come forward and we create that culture where they are not scared,” William Tamayo said.
Tamayo, who works out of the agency’s San Francisco office, was among a series of speakers at the event organized by the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs. About 30 people, mostly representatives of various agencies involved in supporting farm workers, attended the forum at Yakima Valley College.
Organizers said the session was intended to start a discussion about reducing sexual harassment of workers in the fields and warehouses, considered a persistent, underreported problem.
Examples from around the country have shown that workers — due to barriers such as language, lack of knowledge about whether sex is expected of them, and concerns that they could lose their jobs — may not immediately report they are being sexually harassed or assaulted.
“All of that enables the predator,” Tamayo said.
Tamayo highlighted a local case brought by the EEOC against Evans Fruit of Cowiche.
An Evans supervisor in Sunnyside was accused by more than a dozen women of sexually harassing them. Jurors did not agree with the women, but the company settled before an appellate court ruled on whether the EEOC could continue to raise its allegations.
Advocates say the case has led to improved awareness of sexual harassment in the industry.
At the time, Evans attorney Brendan Monahan characterized the relatively small settlement as a way for the company to end the long-running cases.
“If the EEOC would approach the Washington agriculture industry as an ally as opposed to an adversary, then the gains against harassment and discrimination would increase exponentially,” he told the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Blanca Rodriguez, an attorney in the Yakima-based farm workers unit of the Northwest Justice Project, said change must come from company executives on down.
“Until we have that, sexual harassment in agriculture is going to continue. I really, really believe that,” Rodriguez said in her remarks.
Statistics suggest four out of five women have experienced some sort of sexual violence on the job, she said, adding that women make up the bulk of the agricultural workforce in warehouses and packing sheds.
Rodriguez said she sees three important factors for addressing sexual harassment or violence toward farm workers: litigation, education of workers so they know when to report inappropriate behavior, and an increase in services to keep victims safe and support their recovery.
Addressing the issue is important for employers because it reduces liability and creates a safer workplace, she said.
“We all do have a role in ending sexual harassment,” she said.
Lupe Gamboa, a longtime labor activist in the Yakima Valley who now serves on the state Human Rights Commission, identified several steps he said could lead to a reduction in sexual harassment of workers.
Those were making sexual harassment prevention training mandatory in the workplace, treating incidents as workplace safety violations, and better coordination among related agencies.
He likened reducing sexual harassment to the campaigns that led to improvements in agricultural labor laws.
“Working together with churches and labor, we were able to change most of the laws, and I think we can do it again,” Gamboa said.