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Onion packers allege sexual assault, retaliation

The top attorney in the state of Washington is bringing light to a pattern of alleged sexual assaults at a small-town farm. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a federal lawsuit (Spanish version here) against Horning Brothers LLC and one of its supervisors.

Ferguson says the Quincy, Washington, vegetable farm limits most female employees to one job: packing onions.

He says for the past five years the supervisor in that division required some women to have sex with him in order to keep their jobs. That’s in addition to accusations that he groped them and asked them on dates or for intimate photographs.

Ferguson says workers who reported it to management were disciplined or fired.

Ferguson: "This is an especially vulnerable population. These are farm workers, and these women were being exploited, and management knew about that and they allowed that to continue. We're talking about sexual harassment, retaliation, these are very, very serious offenses and that's why we're bringing this litigation in federal court."

He accuses Horning Brothers of breaking federal and state anti-discrimination policies. The federal lawsuit seeks money for the alleged victims. The amounts would be decided in court.

Ferguson says leaving the job may not have been a realistic option for some of the workers. It can be difficult for people to find farm work in central Washington in the winter.

Ferguson: “Sorting onions is a job that they can do during those winter months. And that's income they really need to pay the bills, and so they should not have to put up with sexual harassment, with retaliation, in the workplace for a job they really depend upon, and frankly that their kids depend upon as well."

Company officials have not responded to requests for comment.