San Francisco Chronicle

Suit against Rancho Gordo nearing trial

- By Elena Kadvany Reach Elena Kadvany: elena.kadvany@sfchronicl­ Twitter: @ekadvany

A former worker who packaged shipments of beans at Rancho Gordo in Napa has sued the cult-favorite company, alleging she was discrimina­ted against at work and fired for being pregnant.

The lawsuit, which Martha Martinez filed in July 2021 in Napa County Superior Court, accuses Rancho Gordo of discrimina­tion based on sex, national origin and pregnancy; retaliatio­n; and wrongful terminatio­n. She is seeking financial damages for lost wages and benefits and emotional distress, as well as “punitive damages in an amount sufficient to punish and deter (Rancho Gordo’s) conduct, and to set an example for others,” the complaint states.

The case is set to go to trial in Napa on Tuesday. Rancho Gordo, a nationally renowned darling of the food world and a company that publicly positions itself as a supporter of workers’ rights, has denied the claims and fought them in court for nearly two years.

Rancho Gordo, which owner Steve Sando started in Napa 20 years ago, is known for its hit bean club, which sends members a box of dried legumes several times a year. The popular club has a waiting list of more than 40,000 people.

Sando declined to comment on the suit. In legal documents, the company says the employees involved in deciding to end Martinez’s employment were unaware she was pregnant and that she has failed to provide evidence for the alleged discrimina­tion.

Martinez began working at Rancho Gordo’s Napa warehouse during the holiday rush in November 2019. She had never heard of the company before, she said in an interview with The Chronicle. A temporary staffing agency had placed her there as a shipping clerk, she said, assembling packages of heirloom beans to be shipped to thousands of customers across the country.

The job was good at first, Martinez said. But soon, her lawsuit alleges, co-workers and supervisor­s made offensive comments about her background. Martinez is Salvadoran.

The lawsuit states they made remarks such as, “Las Salvadorea­ns son bien calientes,” or “Salvadoran­s are very horny,” and “Las Salvadorea­ns son como putas y les gusta quitarle los maridos a las otras,” which means, “Salvadoran­s they are like whores. They like to take husbands away from others.” Her supervisor “participat­ed in these offensive remarks and observed co-workers engaging in derogatory, harassing treatment” of Martinez, the lawsuit alleges.

Martinez said she tried to ignore the comments and did not report the alleged behavior to anyone at Rancho Gordo at the time. She feels badly, she said, that she didn’t speak up.

“I feel emotional. It’s affected me a lot,” she said in Spanish. “It’s affecting me right now.”

Rancho Gordo says in court documents that these “negative” comments were limited to a single occasion when Martinez was first hired, and that they were not directed at Martinez personally. Martinez testified that they occurred on one day, but that on other occasions co-workers made comments about her body and how she dressed, though it’s unclear whether that was related to her background.

Because she didn’t report them to management at the time, the company wasn’t put on notice to respond, Rancho Gordo’s attorney, Shane Anderies of San Francisco firm Anderies & Gomes LLP, has argued in legal filings.

Then, in February 2020, her lawsuit says, Martinez informed Rancho Gordo, “including but not limited to” one of her supervisor­s, that she was pregnant. Rancho Gordo contends that she told only co-workers and assumed that other managers heard indirectly that she was pregnant.

About two days later, Martinez told her supervisor that she couldn’t come to work that day due to a family emergency, according to the lawsuit. Her supervisor told her that “Rancho Gordo would not need her anymore,” the lawsuit states, “thereby terminatin­g her assignment.”

A few days later, Martinez texted warehouse manager Mayra Barajas, asking why she had been fired and stating she believed she had been wrongfully terminated due to her pregnancy. According to text messages included in court documents, Barajas responded that she “did not know you were pregnant congratula­tions!” She then told Martinez the shipping department was “super busy” and that she had been absent too frequently, text messages show.

“When we no longer need someone, we just let that person go,” Barajas wrote in Spanish in a February 2020 message to Martinez, explaining Rancho Gordo’s use of temporary work agencies.

The company said in legal documents that it had no set practice for hiring or firing temporary workers, and made quick, “ad hoc” decisions based on daily shipping and sales numbers.

Martinez’s attorney, Elizabeth Lyons of San Francisco firm Liberation Law Group, plans to argue in court that this was a “false, pretextual reason masking a discrimina­tory motive,” according to legal filings. Martinez left early or missed shifts a few times but was not frequently absent, and had no prior documented performanc­e issues, according to Lyons.

Rancho Gordo says the supervisor­s who decided to fire Martinez, including the director of operations and the warehouse manager, didn’t know she was pregnant. The company ended temporary work assignment­s in February 2020 due to the onset of the pandemic and a decrease in sales, according to legal documents.

Alkar Human Resources, the temp agency, ended Martinez’s work assignment at Rancho Gordo, and she never received work there again, the lawsuit states. Her attorneys argue this was retaliatio­n for reporting that she was pregnant and then complainin­g that she had been fired because of her pregnancy. Alkar quickly offered Martinez another temporary job at a St. Helena winery, but she didn’t take it.

Rancho Gordo and Alkar Human Resources were joint employers, the lawsuit states. Martinez’s original complaint also included Alkar as a defendant, but the company has since settled the claims in a confidenti­al agreement. (The initial lawsuit also included wage theft claims that have since been dismissed.)

Court documents shed light on what became a contentiou­s legal battle between Rancho Gordo and the former worker. Lyons at one point accused Rancho Gordo of destroying evidence — deleting text messages related to the case, which the company said happened “in the regular course of business.” A judge found Rancho Gordo’s response “evasive” and “unpersuasi­ve,” and issued a $2,660 sanction against the company in February, according to legal documents.

Martinez said she felt compelled to take legal action on behalf of other female Latino workers who face workplace discrimina­tion.

 ?? Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle ?? Former Rancho Gordo worker Martha Martinez of Vallejo sued the company, alleging workplace discrimina­tion.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle Former Rancho Gordo worker Martha Martinez of Vallejo sued the company, alleging workplace discrimina­tion.
 ?? Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2021 ?? Rancho Gordo Ayocote Amarillo beans sit on display in a retail space in Napa. The company was started there 20 years ago.
Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2021 Rancho Gordo Ayocote Amarillo beans sit on display in a retail space in Napa. The company was started there 20 years ago.

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