Washington blueberry grower sues over mandated 50% wage hike
In late July, the Department of Labor mandated a 50 percent pay rate increase for guest workers, amounting to a 75 cent-a-pound piecemeal prevailing wage. This has prompted one of Washington’s largest blueberry growers to file a lawsuit and threaten to replace pickers with machines next year.
According to the Tri-City Herald, Selah-based Zirkle Fruit is suing in federal court to block the pay increase. The lawsuit states that the mandatory 50 percent wage hike will lead to a reduction in harvesting, likely putting hundreds of pickers out of work and causing a outright elimination of hand-picking at the company in 2020.
The suit also claims that the federal government did not properly consider the differing ways in which farms measure the volume that workers pick, which is assessed through state agencies like the Washington state Employment Security Department. Zirkle’s applications to bring in 2,750 foreign workers under the H2A visa program was approved by the government, in which the workers were set to be paid 50 cents per pound and a minimum of $15.03 an hour.
Local industry reaction to the case is somewhat splintered at the moment. United Farm Workers national vice president Erik Nicholson called the complaint “disingenuous.” But local industry reps from the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, the Washington Blueberry Commission, and Washington Growers League filed motions supporting it.
Blueberry harvests generally run from June to September, with Washington’s 250 blueberry producers producing approximately 140 million pounds each year. While most producers (about 70 percent) use machines to harvest (according to Zirkle), the company prefers hand-picking because it believes that process results in better fruit.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington and the hearing was Monday.