Eight current and former employees of Mensonides Dairy in Mabton have filed a lawsuit against the company and one of its employees alleging sexual harassment and retaliation.
Mensonides is a Northwest Dairy Association member and an affiliate of Darigold.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington on May 22, alleges that a former general manager at the dairy repeatedly sexually harassed and retaliated against the eight plaintiffs, that the dairy failed to protect the workers, and that it eventually retaliated against them as well.
The lawsuit claims that the dairy’s former general manager, who also served in human resources, “fomented an atmosphere of sexual harassment, targeting male workers at the dairy, including Plaintiffs,” beginning in late 2017.
The list of allegations against him include directing sexual innuendos at the plaintiffs, sexually caressing them, groping workers and their genitalia, offering bribes for sexual favors, and threatening retaliation, withheld wages and termination for resisting sexual advances.
One plaintiff alleges that the manager attempted to hurt the plaintiff’s marriage by falsely telling his wife he was having an affair after the defendant’s sexual advances were denied.
The lawsuit said the manager was later demoted, but was believed to still be employed at Mensonides as of the date of filing.
The lawsuit also alleges that Mensonides Dairy was aware or should have been aware of the environment of sexual harassment and retaliation, failed to protect the workers and then retaliated against plaintiffs after they filed charges of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Alleged retaliation included denying previously routine schedule-change requests, not paying plaintiffs for hours worked and terminating employment based on unwarranted discipline or warnings.
The EEOC investigation decided in the plaintiffs’ favor in December, according to the complaint, and the federal body issued the plaintiffs a right to sue in February after its efforts to reach an agreement failed. The lawsuit requests relief for damages, including monetary and psychological impacts and legal fees to be determined in court.
Neither Mensonides Dairy nor lawyers representing the plaintiffs responded to requests for comment.
Eric Nicholson, the national vice president of United Farm Workers, said sexual harassment has been a pervasive issue in the dairy industry.
“This case is not the first and it’s not the last,” he said. “It’s horrifying what these workers had to endure as part of their employment.”
Nicholson blasted Mensonides for continuing to employ the alleged abuser. He said the plaintiff’s lawyers had not heard a response from the dairy.
He called for systemic change to ensure dairy employees with a history of abuse not be allowed to remain in the industry or find a new job at a different dairy in the case of termination.
“Otherwise, we’re recycling these people through the industry,” he said.
UFW has in the past lobbied Darigold “to take proactive action to work with us, to root out sexual predators (in the industry) and to ensure that these places are safe from sexual violence,” he said. “To date, they have refused to take any such action.”
In an email Friday, the Northwest Dairy Association and Darigold said the organizations were not a party to the lawsuit and that NDA’s member farms are independently owned and operated.
“NDA members are held accountable to be in alignment with a rigorous set of standards that ensure excellence in dairy stewardship and sustainable farm practices,” it said. “These high standards include promoting employee social welfare and a safe, positive and productive work environment. NDA is committed to making progress with this program through continuous improvement.”
It added that the organizations have an anonymous hotline where workers can report allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination, all of which are investigated. Corrective actions are enforced as necessary, including retraining and termination, it said.
Jason Sheehan, a founding member of Eastern Washington Family Farmers, which is an affiliate of the statewide group Save Family Farming, said he wasn’t familiar with the individual case. But he said local dairy groups and individual farms conduct trainings to prevent sexual harassment in the industry.
“From a big picture, sexual harassment is a serious issue and it doesn’t matter what the work is, whether it’s a dairy or anything else,” he said. “As an industry and as a total group, we’re doing the best we can… to stay ahead of it and protect our employees, because without our employees, we don’t have anything.”
Mensonides was sued last year for allegedly withholding pay from workers and subsequently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.