February 23, 2016
As many employers already know, one of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) declared national priorities and strategies is to use litigation to prevent workplace harassment. A recent EEOC lawsuit highlights this strategy and points out that the EEOC’s litigation focus remains a matter of serious concern for Idaho employers, particularly in farming, manufacturing, and the service industry. The case involved five former female employees of Moreno Farms, Inc., a Florida produce growing and packing company. The women claimed that a male supervisor and two sons of the farm owner had groped, propositioned, and in some instances raped them, under threat of termination if they were to refuse or report the sexual advances. The women were eventually fired. Moreno Farms, Inc. dissolved after the lawsuit was filed, and because of its failure to appear in the case, the only issue at trial was damages. After a two day trial in September 2015, a federal jury in Miami returned a verdict awarding the women a total of $17,425,000. Of the total award, $2,425,000 was to compensate the women and the remaining $15,000,000 was for punitive damages.
According to its General Counsel, the EEOC sees itself as being “at the forefront of combating employment discrimination on behalf of farmworkers.” In addition to preventing harassment, the EEOC also prioritizes eliminating practices that prevent workers from voicing complaints. In fact, one of the reasons for the EEOC’s focus on the Moreno Farms case, along with similar cases publicized recently is the farmworkers’ reluctance or inability to exercise their rights under equal employment laws. An EEOC trial attorney in the Moreno Farms case commented that the women were long “silenced by shame and fear” and that the lawsuit allowed them to “give voice” to their experiences.
The EEOC’s concern, shared by other regulators and advocates, is that migrant workers will simply not report harassment out of fear of deportation or losing their jobs. In reviewing the 41 federal cases filed since 1998 against an agricultural company for failing to stop harassment, the Center for Investigative Reporting found not one case in which the men accused of assault in the civil suits had been criminally prosecuted. Even though migrant workers who report workplace crimes and cooperate with law enforcement have some protections available, such as the nonimmigrant “U visa” provided to the women in the Moreno Farms case, the EEOC feels that more safeguards – and ultimately, more litigation – are necessary.
The EEOC has made it clear that they will use their full power to address the plight of vulnerable workers, in this case immigrant farmworkers. With Idaho’s reliance on the immigrant workforce, this means Idaho is a prime target for the EEOC’s litigation strategy if the right case arises.
INSIGHTS FOR EMPLOYERS
- To avoid becoming a target of EEOC enforcement, it is imperative that employers of immigrant or second-language workers make sure those workers have a voice, whether through training, complaint procedures, or otherwise.
- All employers should pay special attention to training supervisors on documenting and responding to complaints, mindful that adverse action may be interpreted by the EEOC as retaliation.
Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.