Federal judge restores higher WA farmworker wages

Cherry-picking season has begun in Washington state. (Photo courtesy Pixabay)

A ruling from a federal judge will keep Washington state growers from depressing wages for farmworkers this harvest season.

Judge John Chun has temporarily reinstated piece-rate wages — the wages paid for the amount of fruit a worker can pick in an hour — which can be twice as high as the hourly wage. It’s a victory for domestic farmworkers, who have to compete with H-2A workers – foreign farmworkers allowed temporary visas who typically work for less.

Andrea Schmitt, Columbia Legal Services staff attorney, said growers offering the lower hourly wage can dissuade local workers.

“The grower then goes to the government and says, ‘Nobody wanted my job! There’s a shortage of local workers.’ But the shortage isn’t a shortage of local workers. The shortage is a shortage of local workers who want to do the job for a significant pay cut,” she said.

H-2A visas are allowed to be issued if it doesn’t adversely affect domestic workers. Schmitt said that’s exactly what was happening without proper wage setting from the U.S. Department of Labor. Growers who objected to the decision say it ignores the ever-changing market conditions on farms.

Schmitt said the timing of this preliminary decision is important because the court’s final decision likely won’t be ready until harvest is over this year. That means workers would have had another year of depressed wages – and that wouldn’t just affect them this year.

“It will also depress wages for the future because growers will report those depressed wages on the wage survey for this year and prevailing wages are likely to be lower in the future if they’re allowed to pay depressed wages now,” she continued.

Edgar Franks, political director for the Familias Unidas por la Justicia, AFL-CIO in northwest Washington, which brought the case against the Labor Department, said this decision is important because farmworkers often don’t have their voices heard.

“We just want to have that opportunity to be heard and have our case being taken as seriously as the industry,” he said.

— By Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service

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