Many Washington state growers have dealt with a string of lawsuits stemming from a 2015 Supreme Court ruling related to compensating piece-time workers for their rest periods. At the end of last week, the Senate approved SB 5720, which would remove an employer’s liability in those cases by requiring them to seek out and repay those employees over the past three years. Business representatives and lawmakers in favor testified last month that a legislative fix would bring those growers legal relief and allow employers to pay workers the wages they earned. Opponents, however, argued the measure would shift legal power in those situations away from agricultural employees toward employers.
Ramifications Of State Supreme Court Decision
State Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12) is prime sponsor of the bill. During executive session of the bill on Friday, March 3, he told colleagues, “I wouldn’t bring this to the floor unless I believed in my heart that it was not only good for the employers, but also good for the workers. Things that are good for the employers and good for the workers are also good for the consumers, good for our jobs, and good for our economy.”
The legislation is tied to the 2015 Washington State Supreme Court ruling in Demetrio v. Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc, where the high court found that growers must pay workers rest breaks separate from their “piece-rate” wages, or pay such as by the bushel or bucket. Since the decision, the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) detailed how employers can comply on its website.
Under SB 5720, those agricultural employers would be required to go back three years and compensate their employees for rest time not paid. The growers could either pay a 12 percent interest rate annually from the missed payment date, or both the interest rate and 4.35 percent of the employee’s gross earnings. If an employer follows through, they would not be considered liable for a claim solely for failing to pay for an employee’s rest time over that time period. Employers unable to locate their employee for compensation would pay the amount to L&I.
Growers Seek Clarity On Court Ruling
Last month, agricultural employers were vocal about their belief that a fix was needed to prevent further lawsuits after doing what they understood was allowed.
“I just want to be afforded the opportunity to pay our team members that support the Sakuma decision outcome without the veil of complications and lawsuits,” West Mathison said February 14 to the Senate Agriculture, Water, Trade, and Economic Development Committee. “It isn’t fair that a class-action lawsuit is my source of clarity to pay my team members.”
Mathison is the President of Stemilt Growers, a Wenatchee-based tree fruit growing, packing and shipping company.
“This bill allows me to fairly and fully compensate our team members at rates higher than minimum wage and with better productivity to the company,” he added. “This bill also allows me to do this without risk of having to fight class action lawsuits.”
Flor Maldonado told committee staff that “as it stands right now, the laws are so vague and a bunch of farmers, of growers…are being sued just because they thought they were following the law.” She is the Sales Assistant for Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers.
“If it continues to be ambiguous, I personally believe that it will force growers to only be able to offer hourly rates in order to avoid all the legal problems,” she added.
Freeing Employers From Future Lawsuits
On Friday, March 3, the Senate approved the bill in a 28-18 vote, with three excused. Lawmakers in support included Senate Majority Caucus Vice Chair Judy Warnick (R-13), Hawkins, and State Sens. Steve Hobbs (D-44), Michael Baumgartner (R-6), and John Braun (R-20). Those in opposition included State Sens. Maralyn Chase (D-32), Rebecca Saldaña (D-37), and Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Lisa Wellman (D-41).
According to Hawkins, lawsuits stemming from the 2015 decision has “cast a dark cloud of class action lawsuits” on the agriculture industry, particularly on the tree fruit industry.
“This is an industry that depends on its workers to harvest its fruit, and an industry that wants to pay its workers, but also wants to be freed from the fear of massive lawsuits and extended litigation,” he told colleagues on the Senate floor.
However, Chase suggested a legislative fix was unnecessary. She recommended that in the event of legal action, “growers and the labor contractors (should) simply pay the workers and then there would be no standing to have a lawsuit. This is far more complicated than I think we have been led to believe.”
Saldaña was also in opposition. “What I would be asking of this body is that we seek legislation that empowers a living wage, and not legislation that creates an uneven playing field for workers that are already at the edge.”
“Labor and Industries has offered guidance…for our employers to be able to follow and I know that everyone wants to move forward in a way that supports our orchardists,” she added. “We want to make sure that we are doing right to this workforce…I feel like this legislation is too hastily moving forward. ”
Warnick however, saw the bill as a way to provide clarity for employers within the industry. “When the lawsuits started happening and the breaks had not been included, the growers want to try to rectify that. They want to go back.”
“This bill…will clarify they are able to go back three years and pay for those breaks,” she added. “Workers need breaks and the employers need to allow those, but they also need to have certainty, and that’s what this bill will help do.”