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ConAgra Foods Inc. has agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle disability discrimination complaints by dozens of workers at a garlic processing plant in California’s Central Valley. The conciliation agreement was announced Tuesday by the San Francisco office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which represented the workers. “I am very pleased by this agreement, which avoids litigation and allows the workers to move on with their lives,” said EEOC San Francisco District Director Susan McDuffie in a statement. According to the EEOC, this is the largest agriculture industry disability discrimination settlement in the commission’s history. The settlement follows an EEOC investigation into ConAgra which resulted in findings of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result of the conciliation agreement, the EEOC will not bring litigation against the company. In November 2000, ConAgra, the world’s third largest food company with $27 billion in annual sales, acquired the King City garlic and onion dehydration plant. The majority of the plant’s 800 workers were on strike at the time of the purchase, and ConAgra quickly negotiated with the union to end the strike and re-admit the workers. But 39 workers on leave of absence due to work injuries or pregnancy at the time of the strike were excluded from the recall process and were not offered jobs with ConAgra. The excluded workers, many of whom were Spanish-speaking immigrants, filed complaints with the EEOC in 2001 and 2002. “This dispute arose over a misunderstanding of re-employment rights of a small group of employees who were on leaves of absence when ConAgra Foods bought the plant,” said ConAgra spokeswoman Jessica Berg. “We are pleased to have resolved this dispute and believe this agreement is in the best interests of all parties involved.” Berg would not comment on whether the agreement involved any admission of wrongdoing on ConAgra’s part, saying she was unable to provide details of the settlement’s specific legalities. According to the EEOC, the settlement provides the workers with $993,500 in compensation and job offers valued at roughly $500,000. Richard Proulx, an EEOC enforcement supervisor who led the investigation and negotiation of the case, said the conciliation agreement fits in with the commission’s efforts to resolve cases without litigation. “The EEOC has really made an effort to try to encourage employers to voluntarily resolve problems when they’ve occurred,” said Proulx. “This settlement is an excellent example of that success in that ConAgra voluntarily agreed to resolve that case.”

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