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Labor firm settles federal lawsuit over local vineyard workers' treatment

Published: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 5:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 5:34 p.m.

A Madera-based farm labor company has agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a federal sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit based on the complaints of vineyard workers employed in Sonoma and Mendocino counties in 2008.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Wednesday it filed the lawsuit in 2010 against Mid Valley Labor Services, one of the state's largest farm labor contractors.

The commission charged that female employees working in the vineyards faced sexually explicit language and propositions by a male crew supervisor. The suit also alleged that two women who objected to the harassment were fired.

The requirements of the settlement “should serve as an example and encourage other employers to be proactive in preventing sexual harassment before they have a problem,” commission attorney William Tamayo said in in a statement.

Ben Mascarenas, an owner of Mid Valley and its chief financial officer, said the company responded quickly when the allegations first surfaced by hiring a private investigator to look into the matter.

“The investigator found no evidence to substantiate the claims,” he said. Nor did a second investigator the company later hired.

“We have always maintained our innocence,” he said.

Under the settlement, Mid Valley agreed to pay workers $150,000 in damages. The company will also provide yearly sexual harassment training for employees and revise its policy for handling sexual harassment complaints.

The alleged harassment primarily took place in Sonoma County, Tamayo said. He declined to say how many women would share in the settlement, but it was more than just the two who said they'd lost their jobs.

The Mexican Consulate in San Francisco first alerted the commission to the allegations, he said.

In a report issued this week, the group Human Rights Watch said hundreds of thousands of U.S. farmworker women and girls face high risk of sexual violence and harassment.

“Farmworker groups told us this was a big issue,” Tamayo said.

That type of behavior does not occur at Mid Valley, Mascarenas said. Mid Valley has been around 45 years, he said, and the sexual harassment suit was the first ever filed against the company.

“I can tell you that doesn't happen in our company,” he said.

Last year, Mid Valley was fined $21,100 by the U.S. Department of Labor for violating labor laws following a 2010 car crash that killed one farmworker and injured four others on Guerneville Road west of Santa Rosa. The workers had been carpooling in a private vehicle on their way to a vineyard.

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