Ostrom Mushroom Farm | Jan. 30

Workers harvest mushrooms at Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Sunnyside, Wash., on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a civil rights lawsuit against Sunnyside-based Ostrom Mushroom Farms on Wednesday, alleging the company discriminated against workers.

The lawsuit alleges the company discriminated against domestic workers and women, deceived workers regarding job requirements and wages, and retaliated against workers who tried to assert their rights.

Ostrom Mushroom Farms officials did not respond to requests for comment left by email and phone Wednesday.

Between January 2021 and May 2022, Ostrom fired more than 140 mushroom pickers, most of whom were women, according to a news release from Ferguson’s office. An advertisement for workers posted on Facebook called for only male workers, according to the lawsuit. Women were disciplined at higher rates than men, the lawsuit said. In a news conference, Ferguson said that 24% of female workers were disciplined as opposed to 14% of male workers.

Maria Toscano, who used to work at Ostrom, said the company was looking for “any excuse” to fire workers.

“It’s extremely stressful to know that you have a family, that you’re a single mother and that you have no right to have a job like that because you’re a woman,” she said in Spanish during the news conference. “I was a worker. I worked there for over a year. I left only because I couldn’t take the stress of that place.”

Samira Rosas, who has worked at the company since 2019, said she wants to continue to work at the company and support her children, but that workers must first have their rights respected.

Ostrom hired 65 foreign H-2A workers in April 2022, 63 of whom were men. Ferguson alleged that Ostrom abused the H-2A system and sought to replace domestic workers with H-2A workers. The U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A program is meant to provide foreign labor when an employer faces a labor shortage.

Blanca Rodriguez, deputy director of advocacy for Columbia Legal Services, said this type of abuse of the H-2A program is not unique. Columbia Legal Services, Northwest Justice Project and United Farm Workers helped report the case to the Attorney General’s Office.

When Ostrom began applying for the H-2A program in early 2021, Ferguson alleges that Ostrom increased mushroom pickers’ production quotas and issued more warnings without providing workers with information about their productivity. The lawsuit alleges these changes were a pretext to fire domestic employees.

At the same time, the lawsuit alleges that Ostrom did not hire domestic employees, even though domestic labor was available. Ferguson points to the job requirement of three months of agricultural experience, which many H-2A workers did not have, as evidence for discrimination.

“Ostrom also discouraged and outright rejected U.S.-based workers who wanted to apply for work there,” Ferguson said. “My team uncovered evidence that Ostrom rejected more than a dozen applications from qualified U.S.-based workers with agricultural work experience.”

When workers complained, Ostrom allegedly retaliated through warnings and one case where a manager physically assaulted a worker with a metal cart after a meeting with Ostrom’s management in which she expressed concerns about work conditions, according to the lawsuit. Rosas said she was hit by the cart and had bruises on her leg.

The retaliation, along with the alleged discrimination against female and domestic workers, are violations of the Washington Law Against Discrimination, Ferguson’s office said. The lawsuit alleges that deceiving workers in regards to employment and job eligibility violates the Consumer Protection Act. The lawsuit was filed in Yakima County Superior Court.

“This is the beginning, the fight goes on,” said Jose Martinez, an Ostrom worker, at the news conference in Spanish. “What we want is to have a union at that company to stop the violations of workers’ rights, harassment and injustices.”

Ostrom moved to Sunnyside in 2019, where it employs around 200 workers and ships between 8 million and 9 million pounds of mushrooms each year, according to the lawsuit.

'Sí se puede:' Sunnyside workers protest wages, conditions at mushroom plant

In June, Ostrom workers protested outside the facility and submitted a petition demanding fair pay and safe working conditions.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members through the Yakima Valley Community Fund. For information on republishing, email news@yakimaherald.com.

RFA/Latino Community and Lower Valley Reporter

Heyo, I’m Jasper. Nice to meet you. I cover a wide variety of news, but I try to focus on the Latino community and the Lower Yakima Valley. I want to sharestories and perspectives from the Yakima Valley. I’m interested in economics, labor, geography and the environment, but the most important issues will always be the ones the community cares about. If you have something worth saying, I’ll listen and try to write it down.  I’m a gosei from Northeast Los Angeles and I got my start as a student journalist and editor covering sports in the Bay Area. I’m a massive soccer fan and I still love to play. I also love water in all its forms, the word copacetic and trying new things. I want to read more, and I like to cook, but I’m not great at either. Have fun out there! 

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