SEATTLE — Ostrom Mushroom Farms, a major producer in the Pacific Northwest, will pay a $3.4 million fine for gender discrimination and other unfair and discriminatory practices, resolving a lawsuit filed last year by the Washington Attorney General’s Office.
Officials leading the Sunnyside, Yakima County, company failed to take responsibility for any wrongdoing before selling the business to Windmill Farms of Ontario, Canada, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Wednesday.
They did agree, however, to pay the $3.4 million fine, Ferguson said during a news conference at the Centilia Cultural Center in Seattle. His office will use the money to pay over 170 workers eligible for damages.
“It’s obvious what they did,” Ferguson said. “They’re not paying $3.5 million to the state of Washington unless they did something wrong.”
The resolution comes as Yakima Valley workers now employed by the Canadian company continue to push for union recognition. Several who made the trip to Seattle said they won’t work for Windmill Farms until officials recognize the union.
“Without the protections that unionized workplaces bring you, you’re at the mercy of your employer, and we saw what can happen then,” said Neyra Escovedo, a former Ostrom employee. “They essentially control you. Even your opinion bothers them.”
Washington is one of the few states that protects farmworkers’ right to unionize — a right not guaranteed in every state because farmworkers are explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees workers the right to unionize without retaliation among other protections.
The court order resolving the Attorney General’s Office lawsuit requires Windmill Farms to take several measures to protect employees. It prohibits the company from setting more stringent requirements for domestic employees than for workers hired under the H-2A visa system, which grants workers fewer labor rights, and bars officials from misrepresenting the terms and conditions of employment to current and prospective workers.
Ostrom employed an average of 117 local workers prior to April 2021, and women made up 87% of its workforce. One year later, the company had systematically fired over 80% of the workers, mostly women, and replaced them with men under H-2A guest visas, according to the office.
That represented an abuse of the H-2A program, which is only available to growers who present a shortage of domestic workers, Ferguson said.
“Ostrom managers decided to replace its primarily female workforce because the managers believed female farm workers had child care obligations or could not work late hours or on weekends,” Ferguson said.
Several workers shared they often worked over 12 hours and would not be given time to pick up their children from school, and that it was unheard of to get a day off.
Escovedo, who worked in Ostrom’s warehouse, said she quit after several 14- and 18-hour shifts that didn’t allow her to properly care for her 5- and 7-year-old children.
The Attorney General’s Office also found Ostrom fired and disciplined women for failing to meet production requirements at higher rates than men, even though the women picked more on average. The company additionally retaliated against workers who spoke out, the office found.
The order resolving the lawsuit additionally prohibits Windmill Farms from discriminating or retaliating against employees — or firing or refusing to hire them on the basis of sex, citizenship, immigration status and other classifications protected under state law.
Ostrom is no longer in business. But if it resumes operations during the next three years, it will be required to adopt the same policies.
Company officials could not be reached for comment. Windmill Farms officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Ferguson, who earlier this month announced he’s running to succeed Gov. Jay Inslee, praised workers for speaking out against Ostrom.
Jose Martinez initiated the Attorney General’s Office’s investigation by initially reaching out to United Farm Workers organizers, who put him and his colleagues in contact with the office.
Farmworkers are especially vulnerable to exploitation because some employers will take advantage of those who don’t know their rights and are scared to speak up, Martinez said.
“I’ve never been one to keep my head down in the face of abuse,” he said.
Martinez, who worked for Ostrom for three years, was fired and rehired under a 90-day probationary period like many other previous employees, when Windmill Farms purchased the company earlier this year. A leader of the workers unionization committee, he was fired shortly after workers rallied for union recognition.
He was told he wasn’t meeting demand but suspects his firing may have been spurred by anti-union sentiments.
Isela Cabrera, a current Windmill Farms employee, encouraged her colleagues to stand up for their rights as essential workers.
“We’re still fighting here,” she said. “We want a union contract, and we won’t stop until we get it.”
United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero said Windmill Farms workers, meanwhile, “continue to suffer some of the harshest working conditions and most hostile workplace cultures in the industry.”
“The facts of gender discrimination and illegal workplace retaliation including physical violence established in this case are just the tip of the iceberg,” Romero said in a statement.
Though the Attorney General’s Office has contact with many workers affected by Ostrom’s discriminatory practices, Ferguson said there may be more employees eligible, regardless of immigration status, to receive part of the $3.4 million resolution. He encouraged people who believe they may be eligible to email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 833-660-4877 and select option 5.