A sexual harassment lawsuit against an Eastern Washington farm came under scrutiny this week during a congressional hearing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently lost this expensive, high-profile case and some Congress members are now asking, “Was it worth it?”
One of the country’s largest apple growers, Evans Fruit in Cowiche, Wash., became a target of the EEOC two years ago, as part of the federal agency increasing focus on workplace harassment in the Northwest farm industry.
In a two-part lawsuit against Evans, several women alleged a foreman made demands for sex then retaliated with threats against the women when they cooperated with the EEOC investigation.
In March, a jury unanimously ruled in favor of Evans on the harassment case. Then last month, a judge threw out the retaliation lawsuit, saying it lacked evidence.
On Wednesday, Congress members questioned the EEOC’s overall priorities during a hearing in the House subcommittee on Workforce Protections. Subcommittee chairman Tim Walberg, R-Michigan, raised concerns about what he sees as an aggressive shift toward “agenda-setting” lawsuits, like Evans, and away from more routine cases.
“We should not be diverting scarce resources away from workers who believe they’ve been harmed in order to follow a hunch,” Walberg said. “And we should not be dragging our nation’s job creators through unnecessary and costly investigations without a factual basis of wrongdoing.”
EEOC Chairwoman Jacqueline Berrien defended her agency’s track record and enforcement priorities.
“When and if we determine that there is no merit to a charge of discrimination, the last thing that anyone in this agency – particularly given our limited resources – wants to do is to waste any of those resources by continuing a meritless investigation,” Berrien responded.
Berrien pointed out the EEOC handles about 100,000 cases a year. In the last fiscal year, only nine of those cases went to trial and just one was a loss. Berrien also said the agency has reduced its case backlog 20 percent in the past two years, during a time of budget and staff cuts.
The price tag for the Evans Fruit case is estimated to be in the ballpark of $2-3 million. On Friday, EEOC attorneys asked a federal judge to reconsider the retaliation claims.