CAPITAL PRESS (Salem, Oregon)

August 4, 2017

 

Washington AG: Dump straight piece-rate pay for farmworkers

 

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a brief supporting separate hourly wages for time that piece-rate farmworkers spend on tasks such as moving equipment.

 

Don Jenkins, Capital Press

 

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has urged the state Supreme Court to mandate that piece-rate farmworkers be paid separately for non-picking tasks.

The state’s minimum wage law should apply to time spent on non-picking tasks such as moving ladders, traveling between fields or attending meetings, according to Ferguson.

“Farmworkers do back-breaking work, and they deserve to be compensated for all of the time they spend working,” Ferguson said in a written statement.

Ferguson’s office filed a brief this week supporting farmworkers in a lawsuit against the Dovex Fruit Co. of Wenatchee. The suit seeks to expand a 2015 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled piece-rate farmworkers must be paid separately for 10-minute rest breaks.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Carranza v. Dovex on Sept. 14 in Olympia.

Dovex’s attorneys argue piece-rates benefit skilled and industrious workers, but would be impractical if the court decides the pay structure violates Washington’s minimum wage law.

The attorney general’s brief, written by Assistant Attorney General Julian Beattie, argues that “non-picking time is a distinct category of hourly work during which the pieceworker is not earning money.”

The attorney general’s office said it filed the brief because of significant public interest in the case. Ferguson also filed a brief two years ago supporting separate rest-break pay for farmworkers.

Dovex says it ensures piece-rate workers are paid at least minimum wage by tracking all hours an employee spends on the job in a week. If piece-rate earnings fall short of minimum wage, the worker’s pay is increased, according to court records.

The farmworkers’ attorney, Marc Cote, argues that the practice, known as “work-week averaging,” allows the company to use piece-rate pay to finance work for which the employee makes no money.

The attorney’s general office agrees that end-of-the week calculations aren’t good enough and that the court should require growers to compensate workers hour by hour.

The company defends work-week averaging as a way to ensure non-hourly farmworkers are paid at least minimum wage. Without a way to reward skilled pickers, harvests will be less efficient and harmful to the economy, according to the company’s brief.

The company also argues that workers return year after year to its orchards, drawn by the chance to earn far more than the minimum wage.