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Rampant Sexual Harassment at a Potato Company

Experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace is horrific enough, but then being fired for complaining about it is the worst possible outcome. A complaint filed by the EEOC last week against a Colorado company alleges just such a set of circumstances.

In the complaint, the EEOC claims that MountainKing Potatoes, also known as Smokin' Spuds Inc., and co-defendant Farming Technology Inc. knew or should have known about the allegedly sexually hostile work environment created by production supervisor Samuel Valdez at their Colorado site.

The agency alleges that Valdez, who has worked on and off for MountainKing since 1998, directed sexually inappropriate behavior toward women employed at the location, including former workers Rachel Cordova, Julie Cordova, Tina Reyes and Barbara Chaparro, all of whom filed charges with the agency alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Julie Cordova began reporting to her supervisor Samuel Valdez in December of 2009. Soon afterwards Valdez began making inappropriate sexual comments and gestures toward her, and at one point pulled her into his office, turned out the lights, and forced her onto his lap. The complaint alleges that Cordova also saw Valdez sexually harass other women employees, and told him repeatedly that she did not like his behavior and wanted it to stop. She was fired in June of 2010 in retaliation for her opposition to Valdez's sexual harassment of herself and other women employees.

According to the complaint, Valdez had a habit of licking his finger and putting it in the ears of at least two of the female plaintiffs. Valdez also allegedly sexually propositioned some of the women, touched female employees' buttocks while they clocked in for work.

After another employee, Rachel Cordova, opposed Valdez's sexual advances, he allegedly forced her to work at an "unpleasant sorting station" away from other employees, where he purportedly stared at her from a distance while "licking his lips".

Although Rachel Cordova reported the alleged harassment to MountainKing and FTI's management, they failed to stop it, and she was fired after becoming angry with a supervisor's unwillingness to remove her from the sorting station assignment, according the complaint.

Another employee, Tina Reyes, was assigned to the most unpleasant assignment in the plant after she rejected Valez's advances. She reported Valdez's inappropriate sexual conduct to her managers, but the inappropriate conduct did not stop. Because she wanted to avoid being groped by Valdez, she began to arrive at work late, when Valdez was not standing by the time clock.

After Reyes was disciplined for arriving late by her supervisors, she allegedly informed them of Valdez's purported sexual harassment at the time clock. Reyes was asked to write a statement about Valdez's conduct, and the following day, she was sent to lunch while her managers considered what to do about her report, according to the suit. But when Reyes returned 40 minutes later, she was purportedly told she was being fired for taking too long at lunch, the agency states.

The takeaway: Things can get pretty ugly at work, and management won't necessarily come to your defense. If you have been subject to sexual harassment in the workplace, seek the services of a qualified employment law attorney.

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