Sexual harassment case victory for farmworker

It is not uncommon for farmworker women to be victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. What is uncommon is for them to overcome fears of intimidation, discrimination, retaliation and immigration status to speak out against the harassment and to have the courage and fortitude to pursue legal action to go from “victim” to “plaintiff.”

That is exactly what happened in the case of Hortensia (last name withheld to protect her identity), who came to the Farmworker Association of Florida with a complaint of sexual harassment by her supervisor at the ornamental plant nursery where she worked. Unwilling to accept the suggestive comments and inappropriate advancements towards her by the man who was supervising her and other women in her crew, Hortensia agreed that she wanted to file a formal complaint of the abuse and the retaliation against her. (She had been fired when she complained to the owners of the abusive behavior.)

Filing a complaint

FWAF called Labor and Employment attorney, Peter Helwig, who filed an official complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) on Hortensia’s behalf. Thus, began a series of virtual interviews between the EEOC investigator, an identified witness, and Hortensia.…and lots of waiting. Lots of waiting! At times, it seemed as if the case was going nowhere. Regular phone calls and emails to the EEOC to inquire about progress, and meetings with the attorney about any updates, seemed to end the same: the investigation was ongoing.

After 2,5 years, victory!

A real testament to Hortensia is her patience, persistence and insistence that she had rights and the company had a responsibility. Two and a half years passed before the EEOC issued a final decision on the case. It was worth the wait. The EEOC ruled in Hortenia’s favor, signaling the importance of pursuing a case to its conclusion. Significantly, the company was required to sign a conciliation agreement with the EEOC that contains, among other things, a requirement that the company put in place a procedure for workers to complain about “retaliation, discrimination and harassment;” and to hire an independent consultant to train its managers on these issues.

“This is a victory for me, but this also serves as an example for other women to do the same – to speak out against abuse and injustice in the workplace.” – Hortensia

Hortensia was fortunate to have found a job in another local nursery where the working conditions are better and where she is not experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. Her hope is that this type of sexual harassment stops. “This is a victory for me, but this also serves as an example for other women to do the same – to speak out against abuse and injustice in the workplace,” she said.

Impact beyond this case

Hortensia’s victory has two powerful messages – first, that Hortensia’s courage and pursuit of justice are an example to other farmworker women experiencing harassment and abuse in the workplace that they can fight for their rights and win; the second is that employers, managers and supervisors must be accountable for their actions and are responsible to respect the dignity and rights of their workers. Moreover, this victory is a signal to other agricultural employers in the area that “business as usual” is not acceptable if farmworker women are at risk of and/or threatened by sexual harassment and abuse. Thus, the victory goes beyond this one case to have broader impact.

Our hats off to Hortensia, and our gratitude and support to all the women farmworkers who summon enormous courage each day to do the work we all depend upon.

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