WENATCHEE Stemilt Growers and Stemilt Ag Services have agreed to pay a female tractor driver $95,000 to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit.
Heidi Corona Arizaga worked for many years at Stemilt’s ranches in Central Washington as one of the few female tractor drivers in the industry, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission records show.
Corona alleged in her Complaint that after being transferred to an orchard in the Wenatchee area, her supervisor, Adolfo Melendrez, subjected her to sexual harassment, records show.
Melendrez drove Corona to a remote location in the orchard, trapping her in a moving vehicle while he subjected her to graphic propositions and attempted to kiss her, records show. Corona rejected his unwanted advances.
In the days following, Melendrez continued to make sexual comments and assigned Corona to pick up trash rather than to her usual duties as a tractor driver, records show, noting she reported his behavior to Stemilt’s Human Resources Manager and Regional Manager.
Stemilt compelled Corona to repeat her allegations in front of Melendrez and told her she had to return to work with him or find a new job, records show. After Corona protested that she would not feel safe returning to work with Melendrez, Stemilt reassigned her to work in a fruit warehouse at a lower salary.
When she requested to speak to upper level managers, she was denied access, records show. Meanwhile, Melendrez maintained his supervisory position.
Corona sought help with the Northwest Justice Project and filed her EEOC complaint.
She was represented attorneys Alyson Dimmitt Gnam and Blanca Rodriguez.
Following an investigation, the EEOC filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Washington, EEOC v. Stemilt Growers, LLC and Stemilt Ag Services, LLC.
Corona joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff-intervenor.
Stemilt agreed to pay $95,000, including $2,342.73 in lost wages, $5,500 in attorney fees, and $87,157.27 in compensatory damages to Corona, records show.
In addition, Stemilt entered into a three-year Consent Decree to settle the lawsuit. The Decree requires Stemilt to implement a complaint procedure that protects victims’ privacy and provides access to interpreters, investigate all complaints of sexual harassment and provide anti-discrimination training to all supervisors and employees.
“I hope that as a result of this settlement, Stemilt will listen to a woman who reports harassment and will give her support and not punishment,” Corona said. “I want Stemilt to thoroughly investigate all reports of harassment. I want all agricultural employers to end discrimination of women workers and to teach their foremen or forewomen and supervisors that harassment in any form will not be tolerated.
“My hope for other women is that they are heard and valued in the workplace. I want to tell women—don’t be afraid to use your voice; don’t stay silent.
“There are people at Northwest Justice Project and at the EEOC who will help you find justice. The truth will come to the light.”
“Ms. Corona had tremendous courage to speak out about the harassment and retaliation she endured,” her attorney Gnam said. “What happened to Ms. Corona sheds light on the widespread sexual harassment in the agricultural industry. When employers like Stemilt fail to stop harassment, local workers and our local economy are harmed.
"This settlement should motivate all agricultural employers to implement practices that prevent sexual harassment in every orchard, field, and packing shed.”