Washington Supreme Court To Review Changes To Farm Worker Rest Breaks

Apr 15, 2015
Originally published on April 16, 2015 12:44 pm

The Washington State Supreme Court is considering whether farm workers who make money by the task should be paid separately for rest breaks. The ruling could have far-reaching consequences for piecework — the standard in farming for over 100 years and a mainstay in the construction, trucking and the garment industries.

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In most farm work, fast is the name of the game. The quicker you go, the more you earn. This kind of job is called piecework. In the coming months, the Washington State Supreme Court will decide if farm workers doing piecework have to be paid separately for their breaks. Rowan Moore Gerety of Northwest Public Radio reports the verdict could have ripple effects throughout the agricultural industry.

ROWAN MOORE GERETY, BYLINE: Farmer Frank Lyall pays workers by the piece to pick cherries and prune grape vines. At a vineyard in Prosser in southern Washington, he bends close to a vine to examine a pruner's handiwork.

FRANK LYALL: You can see on the ground here where he's pruned these canes off.

GERETY: Here, the task brings 39 cents per plant. Skilled pruners can earn about $600 a week. Different employees work at different speeds, but Lyall says piecework is a simple system that's effective.

LYALL: Under the piece rate system, a person is really rewarded for their skill and ability. You don't begrudge anyone taking a break at any time. It's totally up to them.

GERETY: Washington is one of a handful of states that require paid rest breaks on the job. The question before the State Supreme Court is whether workers should be paid separately for these breaks and if so, how much. The case could open the door to similar challenges in agricultural states like Florida and Oregon. In Washington, the Supreme Court recently took to the road to hear oral arguments in the Yakima Valley.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are here at Heritage University and not in Olympia.

GERETY: The case was brought by workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms, a major supplier of strawberries and raspberries. Since pieceworkers' wages are measured by how much they pick, workers say the piece rate doesn't pay for rest. Here's their lawyer Mark Cody.

MARK CODY: So you can't take pay from time spent working and use that pay attributed to these other hours that you have to pay for - these rest break hours.

GERETY: But Sakuma Farms' lawyer, Adam Belzberg, says the piece rate already takes rest breaks into account. He says Sakuma pays workers to do more than just pick fruit.

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ADAM BELZBERG: To fill the bucket with fruit, to separate out the poor quality fruit, to go wait to have it weighed and for every four hours, to take a 10 minute rest break.

GERETY: That argument didn't get very far with the farmworkers who showed up at the hearing like Maria de Jesus Cruz Cuevas.

MARIA DE JESUS CRUZ CUEVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

GERETY: She says she'd like that lawyer to go pick cherries or apples so he'd know how much workers sweat. Cuevas says most piece-rate workers don't take the breaks the law requires because they're afraid to lose their jobs. Growers focused on an efficient harvest only want the fastest pickers on their crews. She says paying separately for breaks would create an incentive for workers to actually take them and lead to fewer workplace injuries.

CUEVAS: (Speaking Spanish).

GERETY: Cuevas says in 10 minutes you have time to drink water, your body relaxes, and your mind works better. For their part, farmers fear a verdict for workers would complicate bookkeeping - how to document rest breaks and at what rate they'd be paid. Bob Jones is a lawyer who oversaw labor enforcement for the state of California where a court ruled in 2013 that rest breaks have to be paid separately.

BOB JONES: I think that if the Washington Supreme Court takes a good, hard look at this, they will see what's developed in California, and that is that this is virtually impossible to administer where you have different types of pay rates for employees on the same day.

GERETY: Jones says uncertainty over the future of piecework extends to industries like trucking, construction and apparel manufacturing. Whether Washington could serve as an example on rest breaks is up to the State Supreme Court. It's expected to rule in the next six months. For NPR News, I'm Rowan Moore Gerety in Yakima, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.