Ostrom Mushroom Farms, a major producer in the Pacific Northwest, systematically fired about 80% of its employees at its Sunnyside farm — the majority of whom were women — and replaced them with foreign workers, who were mostly men, under a visa that provides fewer labor rights, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the state attorney general.
The lawsuit alleges Ostrom violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination by engaging in retaliation against employees who reported concerns over working conditions and refused to hire U.S.-based workers and women.
The company is also accused of violating the Consumer Protection Act by hiring H-2A workers with little to no experience though advertising that a minimum of three months was required, rejecting U.S.-based applicants who had relevant experience and offering H-2A workers a higher hourly wage. The Sunnyside company offered H-2A workers a wage rate of $17.41 an hour, but paid some U.S.-based pickers $14 an hour on average.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Wednesday during a news conference held at the Centilia Cultural Center in Seattle that his office was seeking pay lost by workers who were unjustly fired, restitution and civil penalties for the company.
Ostrom did not respond to request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Dozens of workers gathered to share their experiences and call on Ostrom to abide by Washington state laws.
“We’re not here to damage the company, we want it to be better,” said Samira Rosas, who said she was subject to physical abuse at the farm, where she still works. “We don’t want future employees to face the same abuses we did.”
The workers are also hoping to unionize, assisted by the United Farm Workers, who helped them submit a proposal to the company on June 24.
Ferguson’s office investigated the company after workers sought help from the farmworkers union. Ferguson said Wednesday that Ostrom fired more than 140 U.S.–based pickers, mostly women, who had years of experience with the company. Ostrom then hired 65 seasonal workers who were all men except for two, under the H-2A visa program.
In Washington, agricultural employers have increasingly turned to foreign workers from Mexico, Jamaica and elsewhere under the H-2A visa program — meant for employers who are facing a shortage of U.S.-based agriculture laborers, and companies must prove they are facing a shortage in domestic workers, the office said.
The number of H-2A workers employed in Washington state was less than 3,500 in 2011. It may reach nearly 30,000 in 2022, according to a report in the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Farmers must provide these workers with free housing, and wage rate is set through a process developed by the U.S. Department of Labor that includes surveys of state agricultural employers.
But first, employers must certify that they have tried and failed to gain U.S. workers before turning to the H-2A program.
Ferguson alleged that Ostrom discouraged and rejected dozens of applications from U.S. workers. He also said the company made a job posting where it explicitly sought out “only males.”
Foreign H-2A workers have fewer rights than U.S.-based workers, the attorney general’s office said in a news release. H-2A workers face systematic abuses, are forced to remain under their contract and often remain quiet due to fear of retaliation or in attempt to be hired for the next season.
Weeks ago, the federal labor department temporarily banned a Washington orchard operator from hiring H-2A workers after an investigation that found the company violated the visa-holders’ rights.
Ferguson said at the news conference that he was unsatisfied with the company’s response to the investigation and its awareness of what is needed to remedy the situation.
United Farm Workers PNW regional director Victoria Ruddy said she learned of the abuses from José Martínez, an Ostrom employee.
Martínez and other Ostrom employees initially formed a small group and held meetings to organize and call for justice.
Working conditions were adequate until new supervisors were brought in, Martínez said. The company then retaliated against those campaigning workers and those who reported the abuse, Martínez said.
Ostrom also disciplined women at higher rates than men, according to the investigation. The company abruptly raised its production goals, harshly punished workers who were not meeting the demand, and hid real production numbers from the employees, while, in turn, firing those who did not meet set goals.
Some of the women who work there are single mothers and they lost their source of income overnight, said worker Rosas in an interview. She said the company discriminated against women who are mothers because they need to make time for their children’s appointments or to pick them up from school.
As a single mother of three, Rosas said she’s found some security at year-round jobs and the Ostrom work is done inside a greenhouse, which provides some reprieve from the scorching temperatures outdoor workers labor under.
But Rosas said she was left with bruises from a supervisor who pushed a metal cart against Rosas until she left her work area after she reported concerns over working conditions. She said she documented them and reported the incident not only to the office but also to local police.
María Toscano, who worked at Ostrom, said she and others were expected to pick 77 pounds of mushrooms every hour and employees were reprimanded harshly or fired if they were unable to meet the quota, even if there was hardly any produce to pick.
“It was a lot of pressure and they didn’t care if they overburdened people with labor,” she said.
She decided to leave Ostrom around April for her own well-being as the stress was too much to handle, she said.
“Workers are not important to the owners of companies like these,” Toscano said. “But ultimately we are the ones who pull the food from the land, put in the labor without vacations.”