January 25, 2017


Court ends probe into alleged effort to keep farmworker wages down


By Kaitlin Bain

A state investigation into alleged influence by a grower group that may have biased a 2015 state farmworker pay survey has been ended by a court decision.

The investigation was a second attempt by the state Attorney General’s Office to look into Wafla’s involvement in an allegation that between 5 and 9 percent of responses to a voluntary state Department of Labor and Industry survey appeared biased toward lower wages. The survey is used to set prevailing wages for the federal guest worker program. Wafla was formerly known as the Washington Farm Labor Association.

Douglas County Superior Court nixed the investigation into the group’s involvement for a host of reasons, including the opinion that the investigation was an attempt to punish Wafla for actions that ultimately helped create an accurate 2016 survey. The court’s ruling also found the probe caused an undue financial burden on the organization and unnecessarily requested numerous documents not applicable to the case.

The state attorney general was not immediately available for comment Wednesday afternoon. The court decision was rendered last month and the Attorney General’s Office had until Monday to file an appeal.

Questons about Wafla’s perceived influence on 2015 survey results were rooted in the organization’s advice to growers to submit minimum hourly workers wages instead of piece-rate wages, which can be higher for more skilled workers.

The group argued that the survey was inherently biased because it did not ask growers to report both hourly and piece-rate wages, something that was changed in the 2016 survey.

After cooperating with a first investigation and submitting thousands of pages of documents, Wafla’s staff stopped cooperating with the second investigation because of questions about the constitutionality of the request.

According to the court’s December decision to drop the investigation, the second investigation was constitutionally flawed and improperly requested the organization hand over documents unrelated to the subject matter of the investigation, including business plans and budgets.

“A fishing expedition appears to be very evident,” the court said in the ruling.