Berry grower to pay $350K for manager assaults on employees

A berry grower will pay $350,000 to Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office due to an ex-manager’s assaults and alleged sexual harassment of female employees over at least seven years.

The Seattle Times reports the money, agreed to in a consent decree filed simultaneously with a civil complaint this week in Walla Walla Superior Court, will go to several women harmed while working on a blueberry farm near the Tri-Cities operated by Great Columbia Berry Farms, according to Ferguson’s office.

The company violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the federal Civil Rights Act by letting the conduct continue, Ferguson charged in the complaint.

Great Columbia Berry Farms denied the state’s allegations in the consent decree.

"We were disturbed and shocked when we learned that an employee engaged in criminal conduct and the employee was dismissed," president and CEO Steve Erickson said in an email. "Great Columbia chose to enter the consent decree to resolve issues with the victim of the crime and move forward without engaging in adversarial litigation."

At the Great Columbia Berry farm, manager Jose Luis Contreras Ramirez, 45, hired and fired employees and gave job assignments, according to Ferguson’s office. When employees rejected his advances, he retaliated, Ferguson’s office said.

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In 2019, Contreras Ramirez was arrested and charged with two counts of rape, harassment and indecent exposure for conduct involving one worker, according to law enforcement documents.

Contreras Ramirez denied the rape accusation and pleaded guilty last year to three counts of felony assault.

Law enforcement documents show several employees complained of Contreras Ramirez’s behavior.