Attorneys General

FILE — In this Feb. 9, 2017, file photo, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle, Wash.

An Eastern Washington berry grower will pay $350,000 to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office due to a former manager’s assaults and alleged sexual harassment of several female employees over at least seven years.

All of the money, agreed to in a consent decree filed simultaneously with a civil complaint Monday in Walla Walla Superior Court, will go to the women harmed while working on a 136-acre blueberry farm near the Tri-Cities operated by Great Columbia Berry Farms, according to Ferguson’s office.

The company violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the federal Civil Rights Act by letting the conduct continue, Ferguson charged in the complaint.

“Companies that know or should know that powerful managers are harassing and assaulting their employees, but do nothing to stop it, bear responsibility,” the attorney general said in a news release.

Great Columbia Berry Farms denied the state’s allegations in the consent decree.

“Great Columbia has always taken issues related to discrimination and harassment seriously and strives to be a safe workplace,” said president and CEO Steve Erickson in an email. “We were disturbed and shocked when we learned that an employee engaged in criminal conduct and the employee was dismissed. Great Columbia chose to enter the consent decree to resolve issues with the victim of the crime and move forward without engaging in adversarial litigation.”

Sexual abuse of agricultural workers is a widespread problem. One study of 150 female farmworkers in California found that 80% said they had been sexually harassed.

Workers tend to be vulnerable, said Alyson Dimmitt Gnam, an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project’s farmworker unit who focuses on sexual harassment. “Oftentimes, the only thing they can do is farm work,” she said, and there is a limited number of employers, making them feel they must endure abuse.

Many are also undocumented immigrants who fear consequences if they report, and are sometimes threatened by their abuser with calls to immigration authorities, Dimmitt Gnam added.

A predatory manager can take advantage of the vast spaces of farms, she continued, perhaps by assigning someone to work in a block of orchard trees far from other workers, or by harassing workers while transporting them from one worksite to another.

Even in a crowded workplace, the lack of oversight at some agricultural workplaces can give rise to harassment, Dimmitt Gnam noted. The Northwest Justice Project, which represented a woman in the Great Columbia Berry Farms case and referred it to the Attorney General’s Office, previously represented workers who said they were harassed at a Quincy onion packing shed run by Horning Brothers. The Attorney General’s Office also brought litigation in that case, and Horning Brothers agreed to pay $525,000 in a consent decree.

At the Great Columbia Berry farm, manager Jose Luis Contreras Ramirez, 45, wielded considerable power, according to Ferguson’s office. He hired and fired employees, and made job assignments. When employees rejected his advances, he retaliated, even threatening one worker’s family, Ferguson’s office said.

In 2019, Contreras Ramirez was arrested and charged with two counts of rape, harassment and indecent exposure for conduct with one worker, according to law enforcement documents.

The alleged rapes happened about a month apart in the summer of 2018. Both times, the woman was working, once on her hands and knees cleaning a machine used to pick blueberries. “Nobody can hear you out here,” the manager said as he grabbed her, according to a sheriff’s office report.

He also exposed himself to the woman and asked her to perform oral sex, walking away that time when the woman said no, according to the report.

Ferguson’s release added: “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. 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.”

She did eventually report him to the sheriff’s office and sought help from the Northwest Justice Project, which worked to protect her privacy during the criminal proceedings.

Contreras Ramirez, who denied the rape accusation in an interview with a detective, pleaded guilty last November to three counts of felony assault. He has not worked for Great Columbia Berry Farms since his arrest, and by the terms of the consent decree is not allowed back on the company’s premises.

Although there is only one criminal case involving the manager, law enforcement documents show several employees complained of Contreras Ramirez’s behavior and the Attorney General’s Office accuses him of harassing at least three other women. According to the complaint, he groped women, exposed himself, commented on their bodies, and asked for sex and intimate photographs.

Dimmitt Gnam said for her client who was assaulted, an important part of the consent decree is its mandate for policies and training aimed at preventing future harassment and ensuring that mechanisms are in place for reporting and investigating any such conduct that does occur.

Great Columbia Berry Farms, for example, is required to provide telephones where workers can immediately report harassment and retaliation. Previously, the company had a policy prohibiting employees from having cellphones on the job, according to Patricio Marquez, a supervising attorney in Ferguson’s office.

The company also must allow workers to report anonymously, and in their primary language.

The woman who was assaulted speaks only Spanish, according to Dimmitt Gnam.

The lawyer said her client does not want to speak with the press, but in a conversation yesterday asked Dimmitt Gham to convey a message to other women facing harassment. “Don’t be afraid. Be strong. Don’t wait to report … People will help you.”

Margaux Maxwell reports for the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. She can be reached at mmaxwell@yakimaherald.com