ConAgra Foods Inc., the third-largest U.S. food company, agreed Tuesday to pay almost $1.5 million to end a federal government lawsuit accusing the company of bias against disabled workers at a plant in California.
Gilroy Foods, a ConAgra unit that runs an onion and garlic dehydration plant in King City, agreed to pay $993,000 in cash and offer jobs worth about $500,000 to 39 workers. The pact is the largest disability settlement in the agriculture industry won by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued on the workers' behalf.
The suit claimed that the employees weren't recalled in August 2001 after ConAgra negotiated an end to a two-year union strike that began before the Omaha-based company bought the plant. Some workers were on leave because of work injury or pregnancy, while others were denied jobs because of a history of illness or injury, the EEOC said.
"This dispute arose over a misunderstanding of the reemployment rights of a small group of employees who were on leaves of absence when ConAgra bought this plant," company spokesman Chris Kircher said. "We're pleased to have resolved this dispute."
The strike of 750 workers at the 800-employee plant began in July 1999, when Basic Vegetable Products owned the plant. ConAgra bought the facility in November 2000.
The passed-over workers were mostly Latinos and women who had worked at the plant for 10 to 20 years, some even longer. The workers were in their 30s and 40s and married with children, the EEOC said.
"After winning such a long, hard strike, it was devastating to be told that I was not fit for duty and could not return to work," said Elvira Parales, a lab technician who had worked at the facility for 15 years.
ConAgra also agreed to improve training for managers.
Its shares were unchanged Tuesday at $21.63 on the New York Stock Exchange.