From HamptonRoads.com, Tim McGlone, The Virginian-Pilot, 12 Oct 2011.
NORFOLK, VA — A woman who claims hog producer Murphy-Brown allowed sexual harassment to continue unabated for years at farms in the region took her case before a federal jury Tuesday.
Felicia Tennessee of Capron says the harassment caused her to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome and forced her to quit her job. She is seeking $500,000 in damages.
Tennessee says she and her co-workers were subjected to peepholes in the women’s showers, their underwear being stolen from their lockers and found wet with a substance one reported to be semen, unwanted groping and hugging by male workers, and sex-related drawings in a break room.
“It’s fundamentally treating women differently in a harassing way,” Tennessee’s lawyer, Henry Howell III of Norfolk, told the jury in federal court during his opening statement. “It’s very uncomfortable for women.”
Murphy-Brown’s attorney told the jury that he agreed that the incidents occurred but that management did everything it could think of to prevent them from happening again, including transferring workers and re-educating the men on the sexual harassment policy. He also indicated that some witnesses believed the peepholes might have been drilled by the women themselves.
Murphy-Brown, a Smithfield Foods Inc. subsidiary, oversees 6,000 workers at hog farms scattered throughout the rural areas of eastern Virginia and North Carolina. It’s a messy, smelly job in a loud environment, the lawyers told the jury. The pigs at these farms are artificially inseminated and raised until they are large enough to be sent off for slaughter.
“It’s not something you think about when we cook bacon, but someone’s gotta do it,” Howell said.
Tennessee, who worked at Murphy-Brown for 14 years, says the harassment came from a group of Mexican migrant workers who started working at the farms around the Ivor area beginning in 2002.
The female workers began reporting to management incidents of sexual harassment in 2005. Tennessee says none of the migrant workers were disciplined. Other females reported that their underwear would be stolen from their lockers and returned wet.
The last straw for Tennessee was finding the holes drilled in the door leading to the shower area. She discovered them, she says, when she opened the door and a male migrant worker who had been squatting there fell over. Tennessee pressed charges, and the worker was later convicted of misdemeanor peeping.
Murphy-Brown’s attorney said the company took action whenever the incidents were reported, including replacing the shower door.
John Bredehoft, a Norfolk lawyer, told the jury the peeper was terminated from his job. Following other reported incidents, the workers were counseled and transferred.
“What else is a corporate employer to do?” he asked.
He also said the migrant workers had filed a number of complaints against Tennessee, who supervised some of them, and that the drilled holes in the shower room door appeared just a few days after a complaint against her was filed. A manager suggested Tennessee and another woman drilled the holes themselves.
The woman who worked with Tennessee, Bridgett Edwards, also sued. That case is scheduled for trial next month.
Tim McGlone, (757) 446-2343, firstname.lastname@example.org