Hush money

R.H. Phillips decides to cut its losses and pay off farmworkers who claimed abuse

Above, from left to right: Angela Aparicio, Maria Elena Carabez, Antonia Chavez and Amelia Alcauter.

Above, from left to right: Angela Aparicio, Maria Elena Carabez, Antonia Chavez and Amelia Alcauter.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In the end, R.H. Phillips Inc. decided to pay up and hope it all just goes away.

The Esparto-based winery announced last week that it was settling a lawsuit by four former employees, all women who alleged that the company looked the other way when supervisors sexually harassed them and that the company routinely failed to provide workers clean drinking water and restrooms. (See “Las mujeres problematicas”; SN&R Cover; September 23, 2004.)

The settlement awards $180,000 to the four women who worked in the R.H. Phillips grape fields until 2003. In return, the women and their attorneys have agreed never to speak of the case to the media again after Thursday, August 18—the day the settlement was announced.

The women claimed in their lawsuit that they were subjected to repeated verbal abuse and sexual harassment by a supervisor.

“He would say things like, ‘Move your asses like you did last night,’” said Antonia Chavez, one of the four women who brought lawsuits against the company in the summer of 2004, and then another in December of last year. The last suit was handled by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates. Chavez and the three women speak only Spanish. An interpreter gave their statements in English.

The lawsuit also claimed that they often were not given clean drinking water, even in the brutal heat of harvest season.

“They didn’t have drinking water for us. Or, when we drank the water, we felt like throwing up,” said another of the four, Angela Aparicio.

They also said that access to clean restrooms, or any restrooms at all, was a constant problem. One of the four women, Maria Elena Carabez, said that women sometimes would work an entire shift without being able to use the restroom “even when our bodies demanded it,” she said. “Sometimes, my stomach would hurt and my body would ache.” Carabez also said that women sometimes would have to go to the bathroom right in the fields between the rows.

The four women say that after complaining about working conditions at Rancho Phillips, they all were labeled “mujeres problematicas” or troublesome women, and told that they would never work for the winery again.

The company said the women were not blacklisted by R.H. Phillips and that all field workers’ jobs had been let out to a labor contractor who made his own decisions about hiring workers. And the company has steadfastly denied all of the allegations, calling them “outrageous” and “completely without merit.”

Even though they never proved their case in court, the four women claimed the settlement was a victory.

“I am very happy today. For seven years, my rights were violated, and nobody would listen to us,” said Carabez.

At a press conference in front of the Yolo County Courthouse in Woodland on Thursday, the women said that although they can no longer work at R.H. Phillips, working conditions have since improved for the remaining workers. The bathrooms are clean, break schedules are adhered to, and clean water is always available. There is even the occasional carne asada, or supper, hosted by the company to boost worker morale.

But company officials say that none of this is new.

“We didn’t change anything. We’ve had good policies in place all along,” said Sam McAdam, an attorney for Seyfarth Shaw, the law firm representing R.H. Phillips. McAdam said the one change that the company has made is to print its employee handbook in Spanish as well as English.

The company’s president, Mike Jaeger, said that the decision to settle the suit made good business sense. “We’re confident that we would have prevailed in trial,” said Jaeger. “But this was the more financially prudent course to take.”

“We’d rather focus on making great wine than worrying about depositions and a trial,” he added.

The company also may have been worried about ongoing media coverage of the allegations, and the efforts by activist organizations to keep the issue alive in the press.

Last year, when Davis attorney Natalie Wormeli complained about working conditions at the estate during an interview on the Berkeley radio station KPFA, she received a letter from the company’s law firm, threatening to sue her and “each and every person” who made “slanderous” statements to the media. Now, as part of the settlement, none of the women involved in the suit, or their lawyers, is allowed to speak to the media about the case again.

Jaeger said that threats of a boycott and a media campaign that had been waged by the women and their supporters had no noticeable effect on the company’s sales. But he added that the controversy was an unwelcome drain on the management’s time and attention.

“If it were allowed to continue for a long period of time, it’s tough to see how it could help my business,” said Jaeger.