No job, no housing for Skagit Valley berry pickers

The Associated PressJuly 3, 2014 

MOUNT VERNON — A Skagit Valley berry grower who was ordered to include families in farmworker housing is telling workers they have to be hired before any more can move into camps, and it isn’t hiring until blueberries are ready to be picked.

Steve Sakuma, co-owner of Sakuma Bros. Farms of Burlington, said he can’t afford the housing along with all the other expenses it faces, including court costs.

Workers arriving from California might have to wait up to two weeks for a job and a place to live, The Skagit Valley Herald reported Tuesday.

The labor group Familias Unidas por la Justicia was going back to court to ask a judge to order the company to open farmworker housing. The group said Sakuma is violating last week’s ruling.

About five families and 15 individuals were told Monday they would have to wait for housing until they were hired, said Ramon Torres, president of Familias.

With strawberries nearly done, Sakuma said he doesn’t need workers until blueberries are ripe. He can’t bear the cost of housing workers who aren’t working.

“We are in a position that we have got to conserve,” Sakuma said. “We spent lots of money on things we didn’t program for.”

In early June, the farm agreed to an $850,000 settlement in a class-action lawsuit that charged the farm had denied breaks and lunch periods and failed to pay all owed wages to workers during the past few years.

Over the winter, the farm spent roughly $250,000 to remodel its worker cabins after several complaints and inspections last season, Sakuma said.

“They keep taking me to court, and none of that’s free,” Sakuma said. “Is the government, through the courts, are they going to tell us how to run our business?” he asked.

Last week, Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan Cook ruled when a farmer provides housing for workers, the housing must include worker families.

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