Lawsuit: Female workers at ginseng farm allege persistent sexual harassment

Rob Mentzer
Wisconsin Public Radio
Female workers at a central Wisconsin ginseng farm say they were subject to sexual assault and sexual harassment at work and were fired after they complained, according to a new lawsuit by a federal agency.

Female workers at a central Wisconsin ginseng farm were subject to sexual assault and sexual harassment at work and were fired after they complained, according to a new lawsuit by a federal agency.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court. Newly released court documents detail claims by workers at Wausau's Baumann Farms of persistent sexual harassment by a supervisor. According to the workers, a male supervisor propositioned them for sex, sent them photos of his penis and "touched, grabbed and hugged" the women at work. When they threatened to report him for his behavior, they were fired.

The lawsuit covers behavior detailed by the women from early 2018 until their firing in August 2019. 

In a statement, EEOC district director Julianne Bowman said the case "shows that female farm workers are extremely vulnerable to harassment in the workplace." 

In a separate part of the complaint, the lawsuit claims Baumann Farms enforced an English-only policy that required all employees to speak English around managers or on the phone or radio. That policy discriminates against Hispanic employees "based on national origin and is not justified by business necessity," the lawsuit claims.

According to federal guidelines, employers can require workers to speak English in "circumstances in which it is needed for the employer to operate safely or efficiently," such as communicating with English-speaking workers or customers. In general, employers can't require workers to speak English during break times or when communicating with other non-English-speakers.

Baumann Farms is the largest ginseng grower by acreage in Wisconsin. The United States ginseng industry is located almost entirely within Marathon County, and Baumann has more than 500 acres of land. The company has operated since 1978.

Baumann Farms didn't return phone and email messages.

According to an EEOC release, the agency attempted to reach a settlement with the company before filing the lawsuit. The lawsuit asks for a jury trial in the case, and the EEOC will seek back pay for the workers as well as punitive damages against the company.

Article republished with permission of Wisconsin Public Radio