By STEVE BROWN
BURLINGTON, Wash. -- Pickers at a northwest Washington berry farm have walked off the job two times in as many weeks protesting the pay they receive compared with that of H-2A guest workers who will arrive next month.
Workers at Sakuma Brothers Farm have been making $9.19 an hour, the state's minimum wage. But once the 160 H-2A workers arrive, all workers will earn $12 an hour. That's Washington state's "adverse wage" required by the federal H-2A program.
"We've been telling them that," CEO John Sakuma said, "but it's something new for a lot of them. There's a lot of unknowns and mistrust."
One of the workers' demands has been a higher piece rate for the berries they harvest. Sakuma said that as an incentive for faster workers, they are paid whichever is greater, the piece rate or the hourly wage.
Workers have twice walked off the job over pay and other issues. The first time, on July 11, all 250 workers walked off. On July 16, about 20 of them returned. Then on July 22, about 70 kept working while the rest walked out.
Sakuma said it has been frustrating trying to get "straight information" to the workers.
"We had a meeting yesterday (July 23) to explain H-2A to them, but a lot of them didn't want to hear it," he said. "I don't know how much accurate information they're receiving."
Tomas Madrigal, a volunteer with Bellingham-based Community to Community Development, an advocacy organization for Latinos and farmworkers, said the workers earned $3.50 a flat. After the walkout, he claimed Sakuma Farms "completely shut down negotiations" and told workers to accept $4 a flat or leave. Other grievances include the use of electronic scanners for documentation of pounds picked and lack of overtime compensation.
The advocacy group has asserted there is no labor shortage, but Sakuma said that without the added help the berries won't all be picked.
"We had hoped to get everyone to understand how (H-2A) works," Sakuma said. "Our assumption was that everyone who's already here will keep working."
The blueberries are nearing harvest, and much of the crop would go unpicked without the added H-2A workers, he said.
Earlier this year, over 100,000 pounds of strawberries went unharvested because of a lack of workers, he said. Last year, 15 acres of blackberries were left unpicked.
"The ag labor shortage has been well-documented by the media, and because of that shortage, many of the workers we expected back this year never returned," farm executive Ryan Sakuma said. "The bottom line is that we need another 200 to 250 workers for the upcoming harvest, so we applied for 160 foreign guest workers to supplement our workforce. Since preference is always given to domestic workers, if we get enough workers to sign up, we will reduce the number of H-2A workers we employ."
Employers are required to seek workers in the local workforce before they can apply for H-2A workers.
This year will be the first time Sakuma Brothers has turned to the H-2A program. It has been employed often in Eastern Washington, where domestic labor has been insufficient for the tree fruit industry.
Under the H-2A program, the employer has a contract with the worker, who receives a guaranteed wage. Travel costs are reimbursed by the employer, who also provides housing.