- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 7, 2015

DENVER (AP) - The operators of a Colorado potato packing plant have agreed to pay nearly a half million dollars to settle accusations that it tolerated the sexual harassment of more than a dozen of its female workers for over a decade.

Under the $450,000 deal announced Wednesday by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency will distribute $415,000 among 13 women who say they were subjected to inappropriate comments, touching and propositioning by a male supervisor since at least 2001. The rest of the money will cover legal fees for Colorado Legal Services, which helped some of the women bring the complaint against the MountainKing Potatoes plant in Monte Vista, Colorado.

The plant’s operators, Smokin’ Spuds, Inc. and Farming Technology Inc., both affiliated with Houston-based Syndex Corp., have also agreed to terminate the supervisor, provide training on discrimination laws, send letters of apology to the women and post a notice of workers’ right to be free of harassment.

Workers at the plant referred questions to MountainKing’s Houston office, but officials there didn’t immediately respond to calls for comment.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit against the plant operators last year on behalf of four women, three of whom the agency says were fired after complaining about the alleged harassment. It’s the second harassment case settled by the agency against a potato packer in Colorado’s San Luis Valley in the last two years and part of a larger effort to protect agricultural workers, many of them immigrant women, in rural areas from harassment.

Halpern, an EEOC senior trial attorney who helped handle the latest Colorado case, said many agricultural workers don’t know their rights and can’t hire a private attorney.

“We’re leaving huge swaths of the population behind if we don’t take these cases,” she said.

Last month, a federal jury ordered a Florida produce growing and packing operation to pay more than $17 million to five former female employees in another EEOC suit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation.

The majority of the workers in the MountainKing case, including those who first stepped forward to lodge a complaint, are citizens with roots in the region. Four of the victims later identified by the agency are immigrant women. In the 2013 agreement involving the Spud Seller potato plant, an immigrant who spoke only Spanish who happened to know someone at the local legal services office filed the complaint, Halpern said.

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