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Immigrant Workers Present A Unique Harassment Risk

Written exclusively for ChubbWorks

The Washington State attorney general's office announced a settlement in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against a vegetable-packing house. The settlement came after a judge granted the plaintiffs, immigrant agricultural workers, a partial summary judgement, stating the employer's anti-discrimination policy was inadequate, and its response to harassment complaints was not timely.

The lawsuit contains allegations that for a period of more than four  years, the male supervisor of the onion-packing line hired only women, mostly seasonal workers, and repeatedly harassed them. Complaints against the supervisor included commenting on workers' appearance; making blatant sexual gestures; engaging in physical touching; and suggesting "employees have sex with him" to stay employed. The supervisor frequently threatened the employees' employment status, stating, "There are lots of other people who want your job."

As part of the settlement, the employer will pay affected employees $525,000; will ban the supervisor from holding a supervisory position at the plant; and will develop procedures in which employees can report harassing behavior. The settlement also requires the employer to submit semi-annual reports to the state's attorney general. Hal Bernton "Packing House to pay $525,000 to settle lawsuit," (Oct. 20, 2018).

Commentary and Checklist

Immigrant workers, such as those in the above case, are particularly vulnerable to harassment in the workplace. Because their job opportunities can be limited because of language barriers; economic circumstances; and the migrant nature of their work in the agricultural industry, immigrant workers often believe they have no choice but to endure workplace harassment.

Organizations that employ immigrant workers, both seasonal and permanent, must be vigilant in their efforts to make sure managers and supervisors comply with discrimination and harassment laws.

In its Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) identified protecting immigrant and other vulnerable workers from workplace harassment as a priority for fiscal years 2017 through 2021.

One crucial step to eliminating harassment in your organization is to create an anti-discrimination and harassment policy that includes a way for employees to report wrongdoing. Employers also need to make sure their policies and procedures encourage workers to report misconduct.

Employers should follow these suggestions to promote employee reporting of misconduct:

  • Make certain all employees understand the employee handbook and its content. That may include providing the handbook and anti-sexual harassment policies in several different languages.
  • Understand that some employees may not know how to read in any language. Conduct awareness or orientation sessions where the rules of the organization are explained orally and translated into languages all employees can understand.
  • "Sexual harassment" is a legal term that describes a form of sex discrimination. Many cultures may not have an equivalent term. Therefore, it is important to describe by examples for employees so they can understand what is and is not sexual harassment.
  • Make sure employee training takes into consideration that the idea of "speaking out" against a supervisor may be very difficult for certain cultures, for people who may not have many employment opportunities and for those who do not understand they are protected by law from retaliation.
  • Provide multiple reporting methods for employees to use.
  • Conduct training for managers and supervisors that includes a focus on issues specific to immigrant workers.
  • Monitor how supervisors interact with employees.
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Unemployment Rate

3.7% in Nov 2018

Payroll Employment

+155,000(p) in Nov 2018

Average Hourly Earnings

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+2.3%(r) in 3rd Qtr of 2018

Source: Department of Labor

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