Washington State Supreme Court To Rule On Farm Worker Rest Breaks
The Washington State Supreme Court is weighing changes to the way farmworkers get paid. At issue are rest breaks, just 10 or 20 minutes out of the workday.
The verdict could have far-reaching impacts on the Northwest’s fruit industry.
At a vineyard in Prosser, fruit grower Frank Lyall bends close to a vine to examine a pruner’s handiwork. “You can see the gentleman that worked on this did quite a craftsman-like job,” he says.
Lyall pays most workers by the piece, whether it’s for picking cherries or pruning grape vines. Pruning brings up to 39 cents a plant. Lyall says skilled pruners can earn about $600 a week.
Different employees work at different speeds, but Lyall sees piecework as a simple system that works. “Under the piece rate system, a person is really rewarded for their skill and ability,” He says. “You never begrudge a person a break at all--it’s really up to them.”
But the Washington State Supreme Court is weighing changes to those rest breaks that could ultimately re-shape the piecework system used on American farms for more than 100 years.
Washington state law requires a paid ten minute rest break for every four hours on the job. The question before the Court is whether workers earning piece rates should be paid separately for these breaks, and if so, how much.
The Court recently hit the road to hear oral arguments in the farming town of Toppenish. It’s a case brought by workers who harvested berries for Sakuma Brothers, in the Skagit valley.
Since piece workers only earn money by the task, they say the piece rate doesn’t pay for rest. “You can’t take pay from time spent working,” argues Mark Cote, counsel for the plaintiffs, “and contribute it to those other hours you have to pay for, those rest break hours.”
Sakuma says their piece rates already take rest breaks into account. Sakuma’s lawyer, Adam Belzberg, argues piece rate workers are paid not just to pick fruit, but “To fill the bucket with fruit, to separate the poor quality fruit, to wait to have it weighed, and, every four hours, to go take a 10 minute rest break.”
That argument doesn’t get very far with the farmworkers who showed up at the hearing, like Maria de Jesus Cruz Cuevas. “I’d like that lawyer to go pick cherries or apples,” she says, “so he’d know how much we sweat.”
Cuevas says most piece rate workers don’t take the breaks the law requires because they’re afraid to lose their jobs. She argues that growers focused on an efficient harvest only want the fastest pickers on their crews.
Paying separately for breaks, Cuevas says, would create an incentive for workers to actually take them, and lead to fewer workplace injuries. In ten minutes, “You have time to drink water, your body relaxes, and your mind works better,” she says.
Farmers fear a verdict for workers would make for a lot more bookkeeping. How would you document rest breaks? Would rest be paid at minimum wage or would it be based on each worker’s piece rate earnings.
As a former Acting State Labor Commissioner, lawyer Bob Jones oversaw wage enforcement for the State of California, where a court ruled in 2013 that rest breaks have to be paid separately.
“I think that if the Washington Supreme court takes a good hard look at this, they’ll see what has developed in California,” Jones says. “And that is, that it’s virtually impossible to administer, with different employees being paid different types of rates on the same day.”
Jones says uncertainties over the future of piecework extend to industries like trucking, construction, and apparel. And while the Washington case deals with state law, it’s attracted interest from labor groups around the country, just like previous campaigns to raise the minimum wage.
He says the concern among employers is that “There’s already a move to take these systems and minimum wages and protections in Washington and California and Massachusetts,” and roll them out nationally.
Whether Washington could serve as a national example on rest breaks is up to the court. It’s expected to rule in the next six months.
Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio