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Tomato workers win sexual harassment suit against DiMare Ruskin

RUSKIN — A local tomato grower will pay $150,000 to two female farm workers and set up new procedures for dealing with harassment claims, settling a lawsuit by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

According to the EEOC complaint against DiMare Ruskin Inc., two women were allegedly sexually harassed by their supervisors when they worked at the company's tomato fields in Immokalee in 2009. The women were fired when they complained, the complaint alleged.

One of the largest tomato growers in Florida, DiMare owns farmland in Manatee and Hillsborough counties. The 82-year-old family-owned business also runs packaging plants in Riverview and Apollo Beach.

"In the past, employers have gotten away with allowing their field bosses to sexual harass and abuse farm workers," said Peter Helwig, the women's lawyer. "This case sends a message to agribusiness that they can no longer get away with that."

According to the complaint, a crew leader told one of the women he wanted to kiss her all over her body and on her breasts and that he wouldn't stop pursuing her. The man also forced the woman's hand to his crotch, according to the suit.

As part of the settlement, DiMare Ruskin will establish a nationwide anti-harassment policy for employees. The company also will provide nationwide training to its employees on antidiscrimination laws and report to the EEOC on its discrimination complaints for three years.

"Sexual harassment against women in the agricultural industry is a big problem," said Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney of the EEOC's Miami District Office.

"DiMare Ruskin took a major step in the right direction by agreeing to establish nationwide policies and procedures designed to prevent sexual harassment in the future and to provide a means for employees to complain when they feel they are being subjected to it," he said in a June 16 statement announcing the decision.

The settlement is not only a victory for the two women involved in the case but for all farm workers at DiMare, said Nely Rodriguez of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. Coalition staff heard the women's initial complaint and helped alert the EEOC.

"The settlement is great news for everyone involved, first and foremost, of course, for the women who suffered such unspeakable humiliation at the hands of their supervisors," Rodriguez said.

"It is also great news for all the workers from this day forward at DiMare Ruskin Farms who will undoubtedly benefit from the changes brought about through the courage and tenacity of these two remarkable women.

"For too long, the industry responded to accusations of farm labor abuse with denial and opposition, and this settlement is a vestige of that approach."

Rodriguez said the case also highlighted the need for the Fair Food Program, a coalition initiative that includes, among other things, a code of conduct and education for the Florida tomato industry.

"Labor abuse in the fields is real, and it won't go away if we all just stick our heads in the sand," she said. "Rather we have to confront that reality, work together to expose and eliminate the abusers, and move forward together as a stronger industry."

Calls to DiMare were not returned.

Kevin Brady can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Tomato workers win sexual harassment suit against DiMare Ruskin 08/02/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 2, 2012 4:30am]
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