YAKIMA, Wash. — Arbitration agreements to prevent employees from filing class-action lawsuits may not be the panacea for labor disputes that employers think, a labor attorney says.

To be binding, arbitration agreements must be understood by employees who sign them, Sarah Wixson, a Yakima attorney with the law firm of Stokes Lawrence told the Washington Growers League annual meeting in Yakima, Feb. 20. Wixson specializes in representing agricultural companies in employment litigation.

Noting that one organization has been pushing arbitration agreements as a way to prevent class-action lawsuits, Wixson said it can be done but has to be carefully done and fair.

Employees have to understand what they are signing and such agreements can lead to arbitration for each individual employee, which could be more costly to an employer than a class-action suit, she said.

The farm labor association WAFLA recommends employers require workers to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of getting hired to bar class-action lawsuits. Attorneys like large class-action suits and are less likely to be interested in small suits, WAFLA has said.

Among other tips to employers, Wixson said clear communications and treating employees well go a long way to preventing labor disputes. Uniform and consistent treatment of employees is important, she said. Supervisors should stay calm to prevent escalations of any given situation, knowing that if they over-react the moment will be caught on a smart phone video and end up on You Tube, she said.

Job descriptions and expectations should be clear, handbooks should be updated and any grievances should be documented and addressed, Wixson said.

Wages, rest breaks, safety and health issues, restrooms and supervisor behavior are the most common areas of grievances, she said.

It helps to have bilingual supervisors to remove communication barriers, she said.

Harassment can be overt or more subtle but pervasive and employers should look to diffuse small things before they become big, Wixson said.

For example, a female employee didn’t like it when a male supervisor continually greeted her with a firm handshake when she came out of a port-a-potty.

“Stopping things like that is better,” Wixson said, “than ending up in a lawsuit.”

Central Washington field reporter

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