CAPITAL PRESS (Salem, Oregon)

August 17, 2017

 

Washington tree fruit group makes case for piece-rate pay

 

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association and many other groups have filed arguments for and against piece-rate pay for farmworkers

 

By Don Jenkins

 

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association has defended piece-rate pay in a brief to the state Supreme Court, arguing the system actually benefits farmworkers, a claim disputed by labor groups and activists.

The association says that requiring growers to pay a separate wage for time spent on tasks such as setting up ladders or moving between rows would flatten earnings and cause the best workers to move to other states.

“We will lose our most valuable and productive employees,” Yakima attorney Sarah Wixson, who co-authored the brief, said Wednesday.

The court will hear oral arguments Sept. 14 in Olympia on whether piece-rate pay fails to compensate farm employees for all hours worked, as required by the state’s minimum wage law. The question arises from a lawsuit filed against the Dovex Fruit Co. of Wenatchee on behalf of two workers.

The suit seeks to build on a 2015 decision in which the court ruled Washington farms must pay piece-rate workers separately for 10-minute rest breaks. Wixson said farms have adapted to the ruling, but tracking how fast individuals do non-picking tasks would be much more complicated.

“Rest breaks are something you can apply equally to everyone,” she said. “Everybody’s non-production time is going to be completely different.”

Reflecting the stakes, several other groups not directly involved in the suit have filed briefs hoping to influence the court.

Labor groups portray straight piece-rate pay as a vestige of practices that have historically impoverished farmworkers. Washington’s minimum wage law is “one of the protections farmworkers can count on while working for an industry that continues to benefit from exemptions crafted in the Jim Crow era,” according to a brief filed jointly by Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, Farmworker Justice and the National Employment Law Project.

Familias Unidas, a union, represents seasonal workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms, a Skagit County berry company. According to its brief, Sakuma must pay union piece-rate workers $12 an hour for time spent traveling between fields.

The United Farm Workers and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson have also filed briefs urging the court to mandate separate pay for non-picking tasks.

According to the attorney general, Dovex’s policy of rounding up pay at the end of the week if necessary to ensure a piece-rate worker is paid at least minimum wage is not good enough. Farms should be required to take an “hour-by-hour compliance approach,” according to his office’s brief.

“That’s the part that has us nervous,” Wixson said. “If they undermine the entire piece-rate system that will have huge ramifications.

“I don’t think there’s going to be more money to be made for labor as whole. It will just be redistributed,” she said.

Former Supreme Court justice Phil Talmadge submitted a brief on behalf of 20 workers and the Washington Trucking Associations. He said the suit against Dovex challenges the basis for compensation in Washington’s agriculture and trucking industries.

He contested the idea that piece rates don’t fully compensate workers.

“Workers cannot pick the fruit if they don’t move up and down ladders, move ladders, go between rows, and perform other essential work (the plaintiffs) label as ‘downtime,’” Talmadge wrote.