Sakuma settles pay claims, shifts attention to Supreme Court

A federal judge in Seattle rules an out-of-court settlement was fair to farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers in Burlington, Washington.  

The following is from Capital Press:

SEATTLE — A federal judge Friday OK’d a settlement that will net 408 current and former Sakuma Brothers farmworkers an average of $1,221.30 in back pay.

The agreement settles a lawsuit filed a year ago alleging that the Burlington, Wash., berry company underpaid workers by not properly accounting for the time spent in the fields.

Sakuma denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to put up a $500,000 pool to compensate workers who filed claims.

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman quickly approved the settlement after being told by lawyers that no one had objected to it.

Attorneys for the workers say it’s the largest class-action settlement for farmworkers ever in Washington.

The lawsuit’s largest ramification may be yet to come, however.

The deal over back pay claims was reached after a 15-hour mediation session in April. The sides left unresolved whether going forward piece-rate workers will be paid for 10-minute rest breaks, which under Washington law workers are allowed to take every four hours.

The Washington Supreme Court has agreed to take on the issue during its upcoming winter term. Lawyers have been instructed to file written arguments in December and January. The court has not set a date for oral arguments.

Lawyers for both sides say the case will break new ground for Washington law. Attorneys for the workers say a ruling could affect some 130,000 Washington farmworkers.

Sakuma’s lawyer, Adam Belzberg, said he hopes the court will uphold longstanding practice and recognize the advantages for piece-rate workers.

“It’s always been the case that piece rates cover everything,” he said. “Piece-rate earnings are well above minimum wage.”

The workers’ attorneys will ask the court to treat piece-rate farmworkers the same as wage earners in non-farm jobs.

“It’s an interesting question, and I have faith in the Supreme Court,” said Sarah Leyrer of Columbia Legal Services.

Sakuma settled back pay claims with the $500,000 for workers and by agreeing to pay two lead plaintiffs $3,000 each and their lawyers $344,000, for a total payout of $850,000.

After Friday’s hearing, one of the lead plaintiffs, Ana Lopez Demetrio, said through a translator she was happy with the settlement.

Lopez Demetrio, 26, said she worked for Sakuma between 2003-13, starting when she was in her mid-teens. She did not work this year because she was having a baby, now 2 months old.

She said she planned to apply for work at Sakuma next year.

Some 923 workers who picked for Sakuma between 2010 and 2013 were eligible to file claims. Lawyers tried to reach workers who were no longer in the area by sending notices to their last known address and broadcasting announcements on Spanish-language radio stations in California.

Payouts will range from $8.85 for workers on the job for a single day to $3,743.55 for a worker who filed a claim for 423 days.

Over the past two years, Sakuma has been in several courtroom skirmishes, mostly in Skagit County Superior Court, over pay and housing issues. In October, a judge ordered Sakuma to relax rules limiting visitors to company provided housing.

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