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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Farmworkers Reach $850k Settlement with Sakuma Brothers Farms Over Unpaid Wages and Breaks

Posted by on Wed, Jun 11, 2014 at 5:33 PM

Farmworkers march towards the gate of Sakuma Brothers Farms last year
  • AH
  • Farmworkers marching at Sakuma Brothers Farms last year, long before a court victory like this was in sight.

In another victory for migrant farmworkers, Sakuma Brothers Farms, one of the largest berry farms in Washington state, has entered into a settlement with workers who filed a class action lawsuit against the company alleging systematic unpaid wages and denials of breaks from the difficult work of picking berries in the fields. Columbia Legal Services (CLS), whose attorneys helped negotiate the agreement in mediation, claims it's the biggest wage and hour settlement for farmworkers on record in Washington State.

The settlement shows that "farmworkers can have access to the courts and get a measure of justice," says attorney Dan Ford, but he warns that farmworkers deserve greater representation in courts and stronger enforcement of their labor rights.

Under the terms of the agreement, $350,000 will go to cover lawyer's fees and the remaining $500,000 will be divvied up between roughly 1,200 eligible Sakuma Brothers Farms workers who were employed between 2010 and 2013. One of the plaintiffs, farmworker Ana Lopez, worked 293 days during the claims period, Ford explains. She'll receive at least $1,707 under the agreement.

And the settlement applies to workers like 15-year-old Luis, who told me last year, "I thought I was getting ripped off. I deserve to get paid minimum wage, and that's it...They weren't paying the kids minimum wage for the whole season." It was complaints about missing wages, and alleged racist taunts from supervisors, that triggered a series of walkouts by workers at the farm last year.

Sakuma Brothers Farms admitted there were payroll glitches in response to my story last year, but otherwise denied the farmworker allegations. However, the settlement agreement stipulates that the farm do the following:

  • Accurately track all hours worked by berry pickers
  • Accurately round the amount of hours worked (another thing workers complained the farm wasn't doing)
  • Provide clear pay statements that delineate piece rates and amounts of berries picked
  • Ensure that workers are given 30 minute breaks where they can leave the fields
  • Upon request from any piece-rate berry picker, provide the worker with documentation of his or her clock-in and clock-out time and quantity of berries picked
  • Guarantee that it will not retaliate against any worker participating in the lawsuit

The settlement still needs to be approved by a federal judge later this month, but in a statement, Sakuma Brothers Farms confirmed that a settlement was reached—and sought to diminish its importance:

We could have continued to fight this in court and believe we would have prevailed. But that would have cost millions of dollars and taken years to resolve. The reality is that while this agreement amount may seem large, nearly half of it was demanded as fees for the workers’ attorneys. We felt it was in our company’s best interest to settle this issue now so we could focus our attention on farming strawberries.
Sakuma Brothers Farms has tried, at every turn, to portray itself as a humble family-run business under unfair attack from manipulative labor activists—the farm's spokesman said the activists were "from outside our community" and had "convinced" farmworkers to go on strike.

But the farm finally broke from that stubborn rhetoric last month when it dropped its attempt to import guest workers from Mexico (after an administrative judge found deficiencies in their application to the government for the workers). "We listened to our critics"—namely the farmworkers who argued they were being displaced with a more docile labor force, and their supporters—"and we recognized that we could do better," said the farm's owner, Steve Sakuma.

That raised the question: Would Sakuma Brothers Farms finally negotiate in good faith with workers who'd organized to improve their working conditions? Or would they continue to dismiss, deny, and undermine the claims of their own berry pickers, who do vital, excruciating work—picking off of vines the delicious berries that wind up in produce aisles and Haggen Dazs ice cream across the country—that seemingly no one else is willing to do?

Last fall, the farm claimed the class action lawsuit which is now settled "had no merit." But here they are, compelled by the legal system to do better by their workers. Instead of seizing this opportunity to tout better working conditions for their own employees, the company is openly declaring that it only grudgingly accepted the deal.

The farm's harvest season for strawberries starts this month, so the company might want to dial down any other signs like that of hostility towards workers. Otherwise, boycott picket lines like this one aren't going to go away, and farmworkers are going to keep winning.


Comments (22) RSS

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The reality is that while this agreement amount may seem large, nearly half of it was demanded as fees for the workers’ attorneys.

Amusing snipe at the workers' lawyers. How much did Sakuma Bros. pay their lawyers?

Yes, it would have been nice if the lawyers' cut had been smaller. But that doesn't diminish from the workers' victory.
Posted by LMcGuff on June 11, 2014 at 6:51 PM · Report this

Given the high cost of Washington real estate, it's hard to imagine why any of it still exists as farmland.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on June 11, 2014 at 7:14 PM · Report this
CLS should next go after cheapjack Tim Keck and the Stranger for their exploitation and wage theft of the unpaid interns.
Posted by Justice for the Unpaid Interns on June 11, 2014 at 7:43 PM · Report this

Unreported by Slog?

Sakuma will no longer employ local high school kids as summer workers because of a federal requirement related to migrant work visas that require kids to be paid $11.23 per hour. 300 kids in Skagit Valley have no summer employment.

Sakuma has adopted a policy this season that only only men can stay in the migrant housing this summer. Not women and families. Next year, when the migrant families don't want to be split-up, and can't work anywhere else, good luck. And so, Sakuma will apply for H2-A guest visas for Mexicans, and while the liberal litigators are counting their bar tab, and the college-educated activists are editing their documentary of The Great Victory, the laborer will be reminded that government isn't going to help, and every action has a reaction.
Posted by Zok on June 11, 2014 at 8:35 PM · Report this

Would've expected more from The Strangers unpaid journalism interns. #irony…
Posted by Zok on June 11, 2014 at 8:39 PM · Report this
@4, maybe Sakuma shouldn't have abused their workers, and the law, and ran such a shady business.

The fault lies entirely with them.
Posted by GermanSausage on June 11, 2014 at 9:35 PM · Report this
Try again.

There was at best flimsy evidence of labor abuse (note this was a private civil suit, not a government regulatory action.) The "case" was settled through voluntary arbitration -- not court -- for a nuisance amount (the attorneys claiming a ton of the pay) by a company that was smart enough to calculate opportunity costs.

Sakuma only suffers from being one of the largest private agribusinesses close to the Seattle media market.

The more that radicalized liberals think they are winning -- the less they realize how badly the world is turning against them. When Sakuma sells, tired of your nonsense, and the Skagit is paved for strip malls, you'll all be scrapping over $15 an hour (massively diluted in its buying power due to deficit spending) unable to find enough hours (Obamacare kicks in a 30 hrs) to pay off the student loans whose amounts were bloated by the carrying cost of state-employed tenured professors and unionized associate professors.

Welcome to economics.
Posted by Zok on June 11, 2014 at 10:23 PM · Report this
Well Zok, aren't you a prize.
Posted by Racing Turtles on June 11, 2014 at 10:30 PM · Report this
@7, but Zok, Sakuma appeared before judges several times and lost hard every time. Maybe these were liberal activist judges?

You know what I like about you people? You keep claiming that the real reason you hate Mexicans is because they "break the law." But here you are, carrying water for the real criminals like Sakuma.
Posted by GermanSausage on June 11, 2014 at 10:37 PM · Report this
sperifera 10
I was surprised to see Sakuma branded strawberries for sale at Whole Foods today.
Posted by sperifera on June 11, 2014 at 11:00 PM · Report this
11 Comment Pulled (Trolling) Comment Policy
treefort 12
I feel that the workers at this particular farm were empowered by their involvement with the research work Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. The same abuses are occurring all across the Skagit and beyond. I really hope this trend continues, and the first up is awareness. Thank you for reporting, Ansel.
Posted by treefort on June 12, 2014 at 8:29 AM · Report this
JonnoN 13
@11 Every slog commenter wants you to shut the fuck up forever, so please do so.
Posted by JonnoN on June 12, 2014 at 8:29 AM · Report this
mkyorai 14
@13 seconded
Posted by mkyorai on June 12, 2014 at 8:32 AM · Report this

You would be wrong about that. Sakuma appeared before the judge (Cook, Skagit SC) on the matter of not rehiring workers who didn't show up to work during a strike action. Sakuma lost.

On the matter of housing, the judge ruled in Sakumas favor. (Note, Sakuma just spent $250,000 remodeling the housing.)

So, the rulings before the bench are all tied, 1:1.

The lawyer-friendly case (brought by private parties, not a regulatory agency who woulda' jumped all over it), resulted in a paltry "cheaper to settle than to fight" settlement.

So, to be clear – hardly the noble case and clear victories you'd make them out to be.

Nowhere did I say I hate Mexicans. In fact, I admire the Mexican people who come to this country seeking a better life. Our cities could learn a little something from the ethos of the migrant farmworkers, and guest workers. I'm all for structured immigration reform. I believe there should be transparency to who works, when, where and for how much. But I also think that private business owners have rights, and that government has WAY too much involvement, frustrating the liberty of both employers and workers to prosper in a free market.

You don't like the "free market," because you see the failing system we have today as representing "a free market." In fact, government has become so large in your everyday life that we no longer recognize the distortion.

This year we'll be 50 years into liberalism's Great Society experiment. How is liberalism working out for you all?

Posted by Zok on June 12, 2014 at 8:52 AM · Report this

Any discussion? Hearing none, I call the question.
Posted by COMTE on June 12, 2014 at 8:55 AM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 17
@11 you are on your own. A perfect day on Slog would be:

1. Something hard hitting from Ansel
2. Something hard hitting from Dominic
3. Something hard hitting from Anna
4. Something hard hitting from Goldy (yes, yes)

Slog would be better if the ratio of news to arts was 2:1 or 3:1 in favor of news, especially local news.
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on June 12, 2014 at 9:59 AM · Report this
This is solid reporting on an important issue: the workers and growers that help drive our state's economy. Employers need to play by the rules and when they slip up, workers should have the right to challenge them. In this case, the workers won a major settlement, despite Sakuma's best efforts to spin it in their favor. Plus, their bad math: half of a million dollars isn't half of $850,000, it's half of a million. There's a lot of momentum for workers going on in WA state right now and that's a good thing for all of us if we want a more inclusive, equitable society. (Except for maybe the Koch Brothers.)
Posted by sparkglobal on June 12, 2014 at 1:07 PM · Report this
"In another victory for migrant farmworkers" ... how can *not* bringing in H2 guest workers be a victory for migrant farm workers? All those that wanted to come under the H2 program don't get to. That one sounds like a clear *loss* to me, but then again, I'm not a Honduran looking for economic opportunities in the Skagit Valley, so what do I know.
Posted by hrmmm on June 13, 2014 at 11:58 AM · Report this
@19 Ummm, you just ignored the hundreds of farm workers who have lived in Skagit Valley for years and are experienced workers at Sakuma, ready to keep working. One recent decision required Sakuma to hire the local workers who are ready to work, even if they protested last season. This settlement requires Sakuma to pay for the work that these workers worked. Track hours worked better. Allow reasonable breaks.

That's what any sensible person would call "another victory for migrant farm workers."
Posted by sparkglobal on June 13, 2014 at 12:56 PM · Report this
@20 the linked "previous victory" was solely about H2 guest workers.

America, the land of opportunity for settled migrants. But not new ones.
Posted by hrmmm on June 13, 2014 at 1:00 PM · Report this
As a previous management member of Sakuma Farms, I can tell you from direct experience the pickers and factory workers at Sakuma's ( and other farms) work harder than any of you could ever do. Conditions are deplorable, unless you love dragging thru the pesticide coated dirt and mud all day with limited bathroom breaks and no time to "leave the field" for lunch break. For dinner, how about some cockroaches from your "free housing facilities." ?
Finding labor would not be an issue if growers were willing to pay equitable wages and treat people like human beings. And pay all the wages due !
Believe me, this family is filty rich and could certainly afford to treat their workers much better !
Posted by Former Employee on August 7, 2014 at 3:51 PM · Report this

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