Farm workers sue Sakuma Bros. over housing

Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Sakuma Bros. Farms is facing a lawsuit from a farmworkers group over access to seasonal housing for families.

Berry grower says change is ‘prevailing practice’

By Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

A state judge says a Washington berry producer can’t bar workers from employment due to their participation in a strike last year, but has not ruled on claims it is discriminating against families with children by denying them housing during the upcoming harvest season.

A group of migrant workers — Familias Unidas Por La Justicia — alleges that Sakuma Bros., of Burlington, Wash., has notified pickers who abandoned work during a strike last year that they were not eligible for rehiring. Workers held a five-day strike in July 2013 while trying to negotiate with the farm over wage and working conditions.

It is also asking for a court order blocking Sakuma Bros. from excluding families from its housing units.

A state judge has entered a temporary restraining order that states Sakuma Bros. cannot bar workers from employment due to the absences in 2013.

However, the judge said it’s unclear whether workers have a right to family housing due to a lack of guidance from higher courts and an insufficient record.

The workers’ complaint claims that Sakuma Bros. recently sent letters to farmworkers stating that males and females must now live in separate housing.

The company also said it would not hire workers younger than 18 and would not provide housing for families and married couples, the complaint said.

The workers also claim the farm is interfering with their right to engage in collective bargaining in the labor dispute and wants to replace them with guest workers under the federal H-2A program.

The complaint alleges that Sakuma Bros. is “falsely reporting” a labor shortage to the Department of Labor to replace domestic workers with H-2A workers.

“They’re doing it in retaliation for the workers trying to improve their working conditions,” said Kathleen Barnard, attorney for the workers.

Capital Press was unable to reach a representative of Sakuma Bros. as of press time.

It’s not feasible for farmers in the H-2A program to provide housing for non-employee family members of their workers, said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.

To participate in H-2A, growers must hire as many domestic workers as they can before bringing in guest workers, he said.

If those domestic workers bring numerous non-employee family members with them, the farm will face a shortage in housing units, Fazio said.

As it stands, Washington law doesn’t require farms to provide workers with housing, so employers who do are already going the “extra mile,” he said.

In court documents, Sakuma Bros. said that it intends to use the H-2A program to supplement, rather than replace, its local workforce.

The farm claimed it’s not required to provide housing to families under H-2A because that’s not a “prevailing practice” among growers in Washington.

The company backed up its interpretation with a recent ruling by an administrative law judge with the U.S. Labor Department.

Sakuma Bros. also argued that the farmworkers were suing based on Washington laws that are preempted by federal statutes dealing with guest workers and immigrants.

The company sought to “remove” the lawsuit to federal court, which was opposed by attorneys for the farmworkers.

Chief U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle recently agreed with the plaintiffs that she lacked jurisdiction over the case and has sent it back to state court.



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