By Manuel Valdes Associated Press
SEATTLE — A protracted labor dispute between a northwest Washington berry grower and farmworkers has reached a federal court.
Last week, attorneys filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle against Sakuma Bros. Farms, saying the farmers deprived fieldworkers of their paid rest breaks and did not provide accurate paperwork recording their hours worked, which stops them from checking if they were paid accurately.
The lawsuit is the latest episode at the Skagit County farm that grows strawberries and blueberries. During the summer, hundreds of farmworkers went on strike several times to protest their wages and living conditions. Later on, the owner posted security guards at living compounds, but they were removed by a local judge.
Sakuma Bros. is a family-owned enterprise run by Steve Sakuma that’s has been farming since the 1930s. The workers are mostly from Mexico.
The lawsuit, which was filed by attorneys from legal aid organization Columbia Legal Services and the firm Terrell Marshall Daudt &Willie, is seeking class-action status on behalf of about 400 workers. The lawsuit’s plaintiff now is Raul Merino Paz, who worked at the farm this summer.
“I brought the case to seek justice for hundreds of workers who do hard work in the fields, without rest breaks, for low wages,” Merino said in a statement. “With our low wages, it is especially hard to receive less than we are owed.”
Adam Belzberg, an attorney for the farm, said he’s still reviewing the claims in the complaint but added that “the Sakumas have always treated their workers with the most utmost dignity and respect and provided them with fair and well-paying jobs.”
The lawsuit also says Sakuma Bros. broke an agreement with the fieldworkers reached over the summer on how to calculate wages for blueberry picking.
While farmworkers are entitled to be paid at least minimum wage for a day’s work, their wages are determined by how much product they pick during a day, which is a common practice. Throughout the day, workers pick buckets of product that are weighed by a field supervisor.
Paz’s attorneys say that under state law, workers are entitled to a 10-minute paid break every four hours of work, but the Sakumas did not account for the paid break in the wages they paid to the workers.
“The workers did not feel like they have the opportunity to take breaks,” said Dan Ford of Columbia Legal Services.