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WA mushroom farm ordered to pay $3.4 million for discriminating against female workers

caption: A farmworker in Western Washington.
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A farmworker in Western Washington.
KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

A little more than a year ago, a mushroom farm in Eastern Washington put a job posting on Facebook, looking for only male workers. The post was made by a lead employee of what was then Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Sunnyside. Now, the farm has been ordered to pay $3.4 million to settle allegations of discrimination against 170 female farmworkers it fired, apparently because of their sex.

The Washington State Attorney General's Office says farm management at Ostrom believed their female workers had child-care obligations and could not work late hours or on weekends.

From April 2021 to April 2022, the farm laid off a portion of its female employees and replaced them with male H-2A visa workers.

The Attorney General's Office sued the company for misuse of the H-2A visa program, which is intended to allow companies to hire migrant workers only when there's a shortage of domestic workers.

Many of the fired employees live minutes away from the farm.

One of those former employees, Daniela Barajas, said when the farm first moved to Sunnyside, people were excited because of its proximity to their homes. But then the layoffs started.

“What did they do? They decided to leave us all without work,” she said.

Barajas and other affected workers reached out unions and support groups for help. The United Farm Workers, Columbia Legal Services, and other groups brought the discriminatory firings to the attention of the Attorney General's Office.

Barajas said she and her colleagues want their jobs back, and they want to be treated fairly.

“We’re going to continue fighting until a union contract is recognized,” she said.

In February, Ostrom Mushroom Farms was bought by Windmill Farms, which fired the remaining staff and then rehired them under new contracts.

Antonio De Loera-Brust, communications director for the United Farm Workers, has been working with Barajas and her co-workers to negotiate a new union contract with Windmill Farms.

“Workers rallied outside of Windmill Farms in April of this year, and that was on a Tuesday, and by Thursday, four of the workers who had participated had been fired, allegedly for unrelated performance issues," De Loera-Brust said. "But like the timing was just... I mean, come on.”

This is just one example of many instances where De Loera-Brust said Windmill Farms is making it harder for employees to unionize.

KUOW reached out to Ostrom Farms through the number on their social media page. A representative from Windmill Farms said they are no longer associated with Ostrom. But Windmill officials did not respond to a request for an interview.

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