For about six years as she labored alone in a hen house on a central Washington egg farm, Maria said she was sexually abused repeatedly by her supervisor.
As often as twice a week, she told the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, she was forced to perform oral sex.
“For me, it wasn’t easy to work there,” the widowed mother from Mexico, who asked to be identified only as Maria, said tearfully in an interview. “But nevertheless, I did it. I was in need. And I put up with a lot of things.”
Maria and four other National Food Corp. workers received $650,000 this spring to settle a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed on their behalf by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In settling the case, the company denied any wrongdoing. The supervisor was fired from the company in 2011, but was not charged criminally.
Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism has found persistent peril for women working in the food industry.
In partnership with FRONTLINE and Univision, reporters spent nearly a year reviewing thousands of pages of documents and crisscrossing the nation to hear workers’ stories of sexual assault.
In the National Food case, the sheriff’s office launched an investigation by interviewing Maria and the supervisor, Larry Wippert Jr.
Wippert, who was fired from National Food for violating company policies, denied sexually assaulting Maria. The former supervisor did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Adams County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Flyckt, whose office reviewed the allegations, declined to file criminal charges. “He said, she said” cases without witnesses or evidence are difficult to prosecute, Flyckt said.
“We have to be able to prove it,” he said. “It comes down to, is there evidence to prove the case?”
Maria was one of more than two dozen workers who met with Wippert’s supervisor, Scott Vessel, in 2009 to complain about working conditions at the farm, including sexual harassment. Two former workers – but not Maria – accused Wippert of sexually assaulting them, according to Vessel’s meeting notes, which were reviewed by CIR.
One woman said Wippert groped her upper thigh and badgered her for sex. Another said the supervisor grabbed her from behind and said he would give her sister a job if she slept with him.
During a subsequent interview with an investigator from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which upholds workplace anti-discrimination laws, Vessel said the complaints had not moved him to act.
“I just listened to what they had to say and then the meeting ended and they left,” he told the commission investigator. “Yes, I did nothing.” Vessel did not return calls for comment.
In 2010, Maria and four other workers who had attended the meeting lost their jobs. They alleged in the civil case that the company fired them in retaliation for reporting the sexual assaults and harassment.
Wippert, for his part, told the commission’s investigator that he fired the “problem employees” on Vessel’s instructions. In court filings, National Food said it terminated the workers for “performance-based reasons.”
After the federal commission began investigating National Food in 2010, the company sent a private investigator to offer compensation to some of the workers who had lodged complaints. Two female employees received undisclosed sums after they agreed not to participate in any suits against the company, according to copies of the agreements.
The company denied the commission’s sexual harassment and retaliation allegations in court filings. An attorney for the company declined to comment. National Food President Brian Bookey did not return calls seeking comment.
In settling the civil case with the government, National Food agreed to change its complaint procedures, institute sexual harassment training, issue a letter of apology to the claimants and not rehire Wippert. The workers also were represented by Columbia Legal Services, a legal aid group.
Maria now takes seasonal work in the fields, which means the size of her paycheck is often dictated by the weather. She still regularly sends money to her family in Mexico but has never told them what she said she had to do to keep her job at National Food.
She said she decided to make her case public through the lawsuit because “there are a lot of women who remain silent.”
“We don’t speak because of fear,” she said. “I know that there are a lot of women who are going through the same thing. And if we can put a stop to it, we have to do it.”
Grace Rubenstein contributed to this report.