No job, no housing for Skagit Valley berry pickers

MOUNT VERNON — A Skagit County judge on Wednesday denied a labor group’s request for a contempt order against a major berry grower.

The labor group Familias Unidas por la Justicia contended Sakuma Bros. Farms of Burlington violated Superior Court Judge Susan Cook’s order of last week by refusing to immediately hire and house more farm workers, the Skagit Valley Herald reported.

Cook had ordered the farm to offer housing to workers’ families after the farm had said it would house workers but no relatives.

Since that ruling, Sakuma Bros. has provided housing to its current workers and families, but has not yet hired more workers, saying strawberry season is winding down and the expense is unwarranted. Farm officials told those who applied that they would have to wait for blueberry season in a couple of weeks.

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

Workers arriving from California may have to wait as long as two weeks for a job and a place to live, the newspaper reported earlier this week.

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 alleged the farm had denied breaks and lunch periods and failed to pay all owed wages to workers over the last few years.

Over the winter, the farm spent roughly $250,000 on remodels to its worker cabins after numerous complaints and inspections last season, Sakuma said. Neither cost was budgeted, he 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.

Cook said that when a farmer provides housing for workers, the housing must include worker families.

The labor group contended the no-families rule was retaliation for labor organizing activities. The farm said it has housing for about 400 people and needed that many workers to pick the harvest.

Sakuma Farms was started in 1935 by Japanese immigrants and is still run by family members. They grow strawberries, raspberries and blueberries on Skagit Valley fields.

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