Aug 12, 2019Washington blueberry grower fights late mandatory pay rate hike
One of Washington’s largest blueberry growers is threatening to cut short the 2019 harvest and replace human pickers with machines next year.
That’s the company’s reaction to a recent mandatory pay rate increase for guest workers.
According to a story in the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Washington, Selah-based Zirkle Fruit is suing in federal court to block the Department of Labor’s 75 cent-a-pound prevailing wage piece rate for guest workers.
The 50 percent rate increase, which was announced July 24 and took effect the day before, would be “calamitous” to its business, said the suit.
The blueberry harvest began in June and continues until September, meaning a significant portion of the 2019 harvest remains unpicked.
The company filed suit last week in U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington. The case is assigned to Judge Salvador Mendoza Jr.
Zirkle confirmed to the Tri-City Herald on Friday that it is proceeding with the blueberry harvest pending the outcome of an Aug 12 hearing.
However, without an injunction, it will consider more dramatic measures.
“(T)his unilateral, mid-season 50% wage hike will likely result in Zirkle declining to harvest significant amounts of blueberries, which will put hundreds of farm workers out of work, and will likely eliminate hand-picking from its 2020 production,” the company said in the lawsuit.
United Farm Workers, which represents blueberry and other farm workers across Washington, is reviewing the case.
Erik Nicholson, UFW’s national vice president with responsibility for the Northwest and international affairs, called Zirkle’s complaint “disingenuous.”
But Zirkle questioned the methodology used by the government to set the prevailing wage rate at 75 cents per pound.
The federal government relies on the Washington state Employment Security Department to assess the appropriate prevailing wage by surveying companies that hire blueberry pickers.
In its suit, Zirkle said the state agency improperly computed the prevailing wage by failing to consider the different ways different farms measure the volume that workers picks.