A group of Latina workers have sued their former employer, Ideal Snacks Corp., claiming incessant sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation by supervisors.
The harassment allegedly occurred before July 2015 when BFY Brands bought the company. Investigators for the new owners, BFY Holdings President and CEO Paul Nardone said, have been unable to verify the complaints.
The dispute has been further complicated by the firing of more than 200 employees, including the women and the accused supervisors, as the result of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit a few weeks before the company changed hands.
Ideal manufactures snacks for food companies such as Kellogg’s and PepsiCo, at a plant in the Catskills town of Liberty in Sullivan County. It produces more than a dozen lines of “popped snacks” that include PopCorners, Bean Crisps and Crinkles.
Seven women claim they were subjected to repeated harassment and discrimination, from 2007 to May 2015. They are represented by LatinoJustice, a New York City civil rights organization.
The lawsuit, filed on Jan. 10 in federal court in White Plains, names only the company as a defendant, but the complaint identifies eight supervisors and a plant manager who allegedly carried out the offensive conduct.
Initially, the women filed the case anonymously, arguing that they would suffer severe embarrassment and emotional harm in Liberty, a small town of roughly 10,000 residents where many former co-workers and supervisors live, if their names were disclosed.
U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels, Manhattan, denied their request, ruling that the right to know who is using the courts outweighs their interest in anonymity.
The women claim that they were subjected to lewd, graphic and degrading sexual comments day after day. They say they were publicly questioned about intimate subjects. They were often touched or grabbed against their will.
When they resisted, they claim, they were assigned to the most difficult and dangerous jobs, stopped from taking bathroom breaks, denied requests for shift changes to accommodate family crises, subjected to sexual comments about their anatomy, called prostitutes and ugly old bitches, demeaned as worthless, warned that immigration authorities would be notified, told they would get bad job reports and threatened with job termination.
They allege that the misconduct happened in different departments, on different shifts and by several supervisors. Men who worked in the same places on the same shifts and for the same supervisors were not subjected to the abuses.
Monica, who worked in the packaging unit, for instance, claims that a supervisor named Santiago promised to get her higher wages and a better position if she submitted to him. One time, she stated in the lawsuit, he grabbed her buttocks when she was bending over to clean a machine. When she objected, he allegedly warned her not to report the incident.
She stated she told Santiago that she would tell management about his inappropriate behavior. He allegedly replied that management would take his side and that he was like a son to Marvin, a manager.
“Women have complained about me,” Santiago allegedly told Monica, “and they were fired but I am still here.”
She complained anyway, and the manager allegedly threatened to fire her or report her to immigration officials if she continued to complain about Santiago.
In 2015, Immigration and Customs Enforcement audited Ideal’s employee files and determined that more than 200 workers did not have proper documentation. “The company was forced to terminate all of the undocumented workers,” Nardone said, “or be faced with enforcement action and fines.”
All seven women and the eight supervisors were among the fired employees. The manager was fired about a year-and-a-half later.
Nardone said he became aware of the allegations in April 2016, when the women filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ideal hired the Goodwin Procter labor law firm in New York City to investigate. All of the accused supervisors and many current employees who had worked during the period of the alleged harassment were interviewed.
Goodwin Procter was unable to verify any of the allegations, Nardone said, and the company reported its findings to the EEOC.
The EEOC tries to mediate discrimination disputes. Typically, it either issues a dismissal, indicating that investigators did not find unlawful discrimination, or a letter of determination, that indicates that discrimination may have occurred.
If the parties don’t settle after a letter of determination, the EEOC can give the employee a right to sue notice that allows the worker to file a federal lawsuit.
In October, the EEOC gave the women right to sue notices.
The 2015 immigration audit and terminations “caused a lot of hard feelings in the community,” Nardone said, “understandably so.”
But under the new ownership, he said, the alleged harassment represents the opposite of the values and practices for which the company strives.
Ideal has a zero-tolerance policy on workplace harassment and discrimination, he said. Managers and supervisors are trained to recognize problems and they frequently walk the plant floor, unannounced and on all shifts, on the lookout for such behavior.
Employees are encouraged to report unwelcomed behavior. Town hall style meetings are held throughout the year to update employees on workplace values.
In a year and a half under new management, Nardone said, there has been one reported case of sexual harassment. The situation was confirmed and an employee was fired.
Ideal’s customers also review company practices. Last year, for example, PepsiCo auditors spent two days in the plant and randomly selected 50 workers for interviews on workplace conditions.
“There was no sign of any form of harassment,” Nardone said, “and the company passed the overall audit with favorable scores.”
“We are doing everything we can,” he said, “to build a company we’re proud of.”