Harassment training is important in all workplaces, yet is often overlooked at wineries. However, wineries can be hotbeds for harassment suits.
With the informal atmospheres prevalent in wineries come lax procedures and the stifling of complaints. This situation is worsened because winery employees often are lack the same type of harassment training that is now customary in the standard office setting. While the fact that many winery employees are in the fields, working in drastically different settings, or are seasonal may make harassment training seem difficult to do or unnecessary, overlooking such training can have rippling and costly consequences.
Harassment complaints are common in California. Harassment can be difficult to define and identify but includes unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability or genetic information. Such behavior becomes actionable when it is so severe or pervasive that a “reasonable person” would consider it a hostile or abusive environment or if putting up with the harassment becomes a condition of employment. Due to their diverse workforce, wineries are particularly susceptible to such claims.
Wineries and vineyard owners that use labor contractors must exercise further caution, as such contractors can be found to be joint employers with the company that hired them. Such a legal finding means that the company can be held liable for the actions of or toward the labor contractor. In practice, it means that a company can be held liable for harassment perpetrated solely by the labor contractor or the harassment by the company’s employee towards the labor contractor.
Taking precautions to prevent harassment is always less costly than dealing with harassment litigation. Once a formal complaint is lodged with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), or a lawsuit is filed, lawyers are generally required and settlement values are high. And even if the company wins, the legal fees and negative publicity have already taken their toll. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for harassment to be directed towards a subset of employees. Once one speaks up, others can follow.
Speak the language
Wineries can take several steps to prevent harassment lawsuits. First, where wineries employ a significant number of Spanish-speaking workers, written antiharassment material should be provided in both English and Spanish.
Wineries should further consider translating other material, such as documents outlining reporting procedures, posters and even employee handbooks.
Second, it is important that the antiharassment message not only is written down and distributed but also is supported by proper training. As a preliminary matter, the law requires California companies with 50 or more employees to provide two hours of sexual-harassment prevention training to supervisors within six months of hire or promotion, and then every two years thereafter.
However, effective training should run through all levels of the winery — from the fields to the tasting room. Where workers speak primarily Spanish, such training should be provided in Spanish. Live, interactive training tends to be more effective, but there are many types of training including videos, webinars, and manuals. Training should be conducted regularly — either annually or at least every other year. These may be supplemented with less formal training or reminders throughout the year.