Sakuma Brothers berry growers to pay $850,000 settlement
Skagit Valley berry growers Sakuma Brothers has agreed to pay a total of $850,000 and change certain employment practices under the largest farmworker wage-and-hour settlement on record in Washington.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sakuma Brothers Farms has agreed to pay $850,000 and change certain employment practices at the Skagit Valley berry supplier in what could be the largest farmworker wage-and-hour settlement on record in Washington.
The agreement, which has been submitted to a federal court for approval, entitles migrant and seasonal workers to a portion of the settlement funds if they worked piece rate harvesting berries at Sakuma Brothers between Oct. 23, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2013, according to the workers’ representative Columbia Legal Services.
The settlement also includes provisions that there will be no unpaid work, there will be rest breaks, and accurate information will be given to workers on wages and hours.
If the settlement is approved, $500,000 will be divided proportionally among the estimated 1,200 workers who submit valid claims, based on the number of days each person worked. The remaining funds will go toward attorneys’ fees, costs of litigation and awards to the class representatives.
“We felt it was in our company’s best interest to settle this issue now so that we could focus our attention on farming strawberries,” Sakuma Brothers said in a statement Wednesday.
Sakuma Brothers, one of the largest berry suppliers in the state, has been the focus of labor unrest for more than a year. Many of the farmworkers organized a group called Families United for Justice, which organized protests and threatened boycotts against the company.
Much of the group’s complaints concernedthe farm’s use of the federal H-2A program, which allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet requirements to bring in foreign nationals to fill temporary farm jobs. Sakuma Brothers used the H-2A program for the first time last year.
Last week, Sakuma Brothers announced it would hire only domestic workers this season and that it had taken steps to improve work conditions, including better housing, supervisor training and enhanced food security.
Sakuma Brothers said last week that the minimum wage for all berry pickers will be either $11.87 per hour — the wage set by the federal government for Washington for all foreign H-2A and domestic workers in corresponding employment — or what workers earn piece-rate, whichever is higher.
The settlement agreement states that Sakuma Brothers must accurately track and record all hours worked by migrant and seasonal piece-rate workers. The farm also must “affirmatively provide and ensure” that all piece-rate pickers take a 10-minute rest break for every four hours of work.
Francisco Eugenio Paz, who was one of the proposed plaintiff-class representatives, said the settlement makes up for Sakuma Brothers’ “practice of underpaying us and not giving us breaks,” something Sakuma Brothers have said didn’t happen.
Sakuma Brothers said it decided to settle so it could focus on the upcoming season.
“We could have continued to fight this in court and believe we would have prevailed,” the statement said. “But that would have cost millions of dollars and taken years to resolve.”
The settlement has been submitted to U.S. District Court Chief Judge Marsha Pechman for approval. The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Western Washington in October 2013.
Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or firstname.lastname@example.org