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AG Ferguson: Walla Walla County berry farm must pay $350,000 over sexual assault, harassment of farm workers

Berry farm manager sexually harassed multiple employees and retaliated against them for speaking out

OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced that Great Columbia Berry Farms LLC, a blueberry grower in Walla Walla County, will pay $350,000 as a result of his office’s civil rights enforcement action. The lawsuit asserts one of the company’s managers, Jose Luis Contreras Ramirez, raped at least one female worker, sexually harassed several female workers over the course of years and retaliated against those workers who spoke out against his conduct. At least four women were affected by Contreras’s conduct.

The entire $350,000 monetary recovery will go directly to the women harmed by Contreras and Great Columbia Berry Farms. The exact amount each woman will receive will depend upon the nature and extent of the harms they experienced.

Under today’s legally binding consent decree, filed in Walla Walla County Superior Court, the company must adopt anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies and trainings, approved in advance by the Attorney General’s Office. Once it is approved by the court, the consent decree will become an enforceable court order.

The Northwest Justice Project referred the case to the Attorney General’s Office after learning that Contreras sexually harassed several women — and sexually assaulted at least one woman — including one of the Northwest Justice Project’s clients.

“Companies that know or should know that powerful managers are harassing and assaulting their employees, but do nothing to stop it, bear responsibility,” Ferguson said. “Agricultural workers deserve to be heard — and they deserve a safe work environment free from abuse.”

Case background

Great Columbia Berry Farms owns and operates a 136-acre blueberry farm in Burbank, Wash., near the Tri-Cities in Walla Walla County. The farm employed Jose Luis Contreras Ramirez as a supervisor and manager. According to the state’s complaint, filed today along with the consent decree, Contreras oversaw operations at the farm and had the authority to hire employees, make job assignments, fire employees and determine who would be offered work the following season.

From at least 2012 to 2019, Contreras subjected several female employees to severe, pervasive and unwelcome sexual conduct, including unwanted touching, sexually charged comments about his employees’ appearance and repeated demands for sex. On at least two occasions, he forcibly raped an employee, for which he was later charged with two counts of second-degree rape. On November 2, 2020, he plead guilty to three counts of felony assault.

Contreras also retaliated against and threatened employees who rejected his advances, including firing at least three women after they told him to stop his harassment. The complaint asserts that the company knew or should have known of Contreras’s conduct, but failed to do anything to address or stop his behavior.

One of Contreras’s former employees, who worked at the farm for 10 seasons, reported that Contreras raped her twice, while she was working. 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.

Another former employee, who worked at Great Columbia Berry Farms on-and-off for almost a decade, reported that Contreras subjected her to constant harassment and threatened her with assault and harm to her family if she told anyone about it. He fired her after she shouted at him to stop his harassment.

Ferguson’s complaint asserts Great Columbia Berry Farms violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the actions of Contreras, its manager, subjecting multiple employees to sexual harassment and retaliation.

In October 2019, Contreras was arrested for sexual assault charges in a criminal proceeding in Walla Walla County in connection with the rape of one of the women he supervised. He has not worked at Great Columbia Berry Farms since his arrest.

Details of the resolution

Today’s consent decree bars Great Columbia Berry Farms from rehiring Contreras in any capacity, or allowing him to enter the farm or have contact with any of its employees. In addition, the company is required to:

  • Implement revised complaint procedures for employees to report harassment, discrimination and retaliation — including allowing these reports to be submitted anonymously and in the employee’s primary language
  • Institute investigative procedures to ensure proper investigations of complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation
  • Provide semi-annual reports to the Attorney General’s Office and notify the Attorney General of any complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment or retaliation received from its employees
  • Adopt a complete non-discrimination and anti-retaliation policy approved in advance by the Attorney General’s Office
  • Provide annual trainings, conducted by a qualified and independent third party, to management on their obligations under the Washington Law Against Discrimination and Title VII, and also provide training to its workforce
  • Make new policies and procedures available to its workforce in both English and Spanish

The company is also required to pay $350,000 to the Attorney General’s Office, which will be used to compensate several women who were harmed by Contreras’s conduct.

Assistant Attorney General Yesica Hernandez of the Wing Luke Civil Rights Division is leading the case for the Attorney General’s Office.

The Wing Luke Civil Rights Division was created in 2015 to protect the rights of all Washington residents by enforcing state and federal anti-discrimination laws. It is named for Wing Luke, who served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went on to become the first person of color elected to the Seattle City Council and the first Asian-American elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.

The Washington Law Against Discrimination prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability or honorably discharged veteran or military status.

More information about Washington’s civil rights laws in employment is available at http://www.hum.wa.gov/employment. Individuals who believe they have been victims of employment discrimination can file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission at http://www.hum.wa.gov/discrimination-complaint or can contact the Office of the Attorney General at civilrights@atg.wa.gov.

Para leer esta noticia en español, haga clic aquí.

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The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.

 

Media Contact:

Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.aho@atg.wa.gov

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