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CLARION - DeCoster Farms settled a federal discrimination lawsuit for $1.5 million Monday. The suit was filed on behalf of 11 Hispanic women who said they were raped or sexually harassed while working at North Iowa egg plants.

DeCoster Farms, which did not admit liability, will pay $1.5 million to the women who worked at its plants in Wright County, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in a press release.

Five alleged rape victims will get $200,000 each, $300,000 will be divided among six alleged victims of sexual harassment and $125,000 will be held for alleged victims who come forward later, said Jean Kamp, an EEOC regional attorney in Milwaukee.

The Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which filed the discrimination charge with the EEOC, will receive $100,000.

The EEOC filed its lawsuit in August 2001 against DeCoster Farms and Iowa Ag-Construction Co., which recruits workers for several egg farms in northern Iowa.

The lawsuit claimed that the women, who worked as egg packers at four DeCoster farm sites, were raped by supervisors who threatened to have them fired or killed if they did not submit.

In January 2002, the EEOC determined that some supervisors employed by DeCoster Farms sexually assaulted and harassed female employees, especially those of Mexican and other Hispanic origin. Some of the women were undocumented workers and were threatened with retaliation if they complained, the EEOC said.

Kamp said none of the men have been criminally charged.

"We were always concerned with that," Kamp said of the lack of criminal charges. "We always work with local agencies and we did talk about it with county attorney. It is our understanding that the men have returned to Mexico."

Kamp said the undocumented victims have gained immigration status that allows them to work legally in the United States. She did not know if the women are still working for DeCoster.

According to the EEOC press release, DeCoster previously fired the supervisors for unrelated reasons.

Wright County Sheriff Paul Schulz worked with agents and interpreters from the FBI during the investigation.

"We regret that any worker ever felt abused or harassed in the work place and would never have tolerated such a situation had it been known," said Peter DeCoster, who oversees the company's operations in Iowa, in a news release.

"We view this settlement as a very positive step forward. It is appropriate that the settlement funds paid will go toward helping those affected by this case. We will continue doing everything we can to make sure DeCoster Farms is a safe and welcoming place for all current and future employees."

DeCoster has implemented anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies at its operations, according to the company and EEOC. The company will hold training programs about issues in the work place. An employee liaison will report to the EEOC for the next three years about working conditions and compliance with the settlement.

About 340 people work at DeCoster Farms in Wright County. The company's operations and buildings are scattered throughout the county, consisting mostly of long, low, aqua-colored buildings with metal roofs and interspersed with manure lagoons.

DeCoster Farms are owned by A.J. "Jack" DeCoster, who reached a $6 million settlement in May 2001 with hundreds of Mexican laborers at his operations in Maine after being accused of discrimination.

Federal officials reported that working conditions at the Maine plants were deplorable and among the nation's worst after a five-year investigation.

- The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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