Washington state

Federal judge in Richland stops 50% pay hike for blueberry pickers — for now

A federal judge blocked the government on Thursday from imposing a 50 percent wage hike for blueberry pickers.

U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Mendoza Jr. temporarily stopped the Department of Labor from implementing a July order raising wages for pickers.

The company was told to pay workers 75 cents a pound — half again more than the 50 cents workers received in 2018.

Selah-based Zirkle Fruit sued to prevent the government from starting the new wage structure.

The government notified Zirkle of the new pay rate on July 24, a day after the increase actually took effect.

Blindsided by mid-harvest increase

Zirkle said it was blindsided by the mid-harvest pay hike. The blueberry harvest began in June and continues through September.

It said the government signed off on the old 50-cent rate when it approved Zirkle’s two applications to bring in 2,750 guest workers through the H-2A visa program. That program sets the rules for guest workers.

The contracts guarantee a minimum wage of $15.03 an hour. The average hourly rate for blueberry pickers was $17.13 at the 50-cent rate, the company said.

A federal judge blocked the government from imposing a 50 percent wage hike for blueberry pickers in court Thursday. Shane White/Dreamstime TNS

Zirkle estimated it would cost an added $1.4 million to pay the higher rate.

The cost would eliminate profits and force it to embrace mechanical harvesting, putting thousands of farm workers out of a job.

At a federal court hearing Thursday morning in Richland, Mendoza seemed startled when a government attorney said the impact on Zirkle’s profits wasn’t relevant to the court case. The attorney suggested Zirkle could raise prices to cover the difference or recover profits later.

“Is Zirkle in this as a hobby?” the judge inquired.

The injunction will remain in effect until it is lifted or the case is resolved at trial.

In the interim, Zirkle is required to deposit the difference between the old and new wages, as well as taxes, in a trust account.

If the 75-cent rate is upheld, workers will be paid the difference even if they already have returned to their home countries.

Zirkle is required to secure the names and permanent addresses of workers to ensure it can find them later.

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A federal judge blocked the government from imposing a 50 percent wage hike for blueberry pickers in court Thursday. Tri-City Herald file

Brendan Monahan, a Yakima attorney representing Zirkle, assured Mendoza the company has collected the information. It is confident it can find its guest workers after they return to their home countries owing to longstanding relationships with workers and the companies that manage them..

All of its 2018 workers returned for the 2019 harvest, Monahan told the judge.

Wage calculations unclear

The government moved to raise the piecemeal rate for blueberry workers based on a prevailing wage determined by the Washington state Employment Security Department.

The survey included 54 growers with an average of 33 workers each.

The state released a summary of the survey results but has not released details, citing state confidentiality laws.

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The Federal Building at 825 Jadwin Ave. in Richland includes a U.S. courthouse. Tri-City Herald File

Critics say the lack of transparency makes it difficult to validate if 75 cents is the prevailing wage.

Zirkle declined to participate in the wage survey, saying its wages are determined through the H2-A program and are well known to the government.

The company is one of about 250 independent blueberry growers in Washington and the most reliant on human workers to pick blueberries.

Zirkle said its approach results in better berries for the fresh market. But if forced to pay 75 cents a pound, it will switch to mechanical harvesters.

Monahan said the result would be a big payday for mechanical harvester salesmen but bad news for the workers they would replace.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.