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Labor situation eases at berry farm


By STEVE BROWN



Capital Press



BURLINGTON, Wash. -- Tensions have eased at Sakuma Brothers Farm, the site of two work stoppages since July 11.



Tomas Madrigal, spokesman for Community to Community Development, a farmworker advocacy group, said Friday morning that a committee of workers "is looking over a new wage policy from (farm executive) Ryan Sakuma."



On Thursday, Madrigal said, employees and employers negotiated directly instead of through labor consultants, "and some faith was restored in that process."



"Workers are trying to take some control over the conditions," he said. When some workers are paid piece rate and others receive wages, the work force becomes segregated. Wage workers have job security; piece rate workers who do not produce the minimum "would be fired."



Farm spokesman John Segale explained how piece rates are calculated. The piece rate for each field is based on yield, age of the field, variety, condition of the plants and packing style -- into cartons, clam shells or field trays. Also affecting the piece rate is the amount of fruit remaining in the field from previous pickings.



"We go through a field several times as fruit matures," he said.



Owners or managers do a test pick to determine the amount of fruit they expect to be harvested, then set the rate so most workers will earn about $12 per hour.



"Think bell curve," he said. Most will be around the hourly minimum wage of $9.19 -- or $12 starting Aug. 5 -- with the top end earning $20 to $30 or more per hour.



The hand-harvest pickers get the higher of piece rate or the Washington minimum wage of $9.19.



"If a worker does not earn enough on piece rate, we are required by law to make up the difference between piece rate earning and the minimum wage so the worker earns at least minimum wage," Segale said.



Aug. 5 is the date Sakuma Farms expects to have in place about 160 foreign guest workers through the federal H-2A program. At that time, the program's adverse effective wage rate of $12 will prevail for all workers, domestic and H-2A.



"We do make up pay to that if piece rate earnings are less," Segale said.



Madrigal said the pay policy is like a contract, which he called "a good-faith effort on the part of Sakuma Farms."



Part of the policy changes the process of determining piece rates, including the workers in those decisions. Madrigal said an agreement would give the workers more predictability in what they earn.



"The workers are tired of having to renegotiate every year," he said. "Previous work stoppages in 2004 and 2010 resulted in no gain."



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