The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has sided with blueberry pickers Thursday in a federal lawsuit against Sarbanand Farms and a Mexican company that helped the workers get visas.

L&I argues in a court brief that CSI Visa Processing of Durango, Mexico, should have obtained a Washington license to supply farmworkers.

If L&I's position holds, CSI, Sarbanand and the farm's parent company, Munger Brothers of California, potentially face more than $1 million in damages for violating the state's Farm Labor Contractor Act.

The act is intended to protect transitory farmworkers from being abused or unpaid.

According to court records, an L&I official told the company more than once that it didn't need a license. A higher-level department official, in a court deposition, said that was bad advice.

L&I now joins Columbia Legal Services in asking U.S. District Judge John Coughenour to let the state Supreme Court decide whether CSI violated the law, even if workers were initially sent to work in California, not Washington.

Washington's high court has ruled against agricultural employers in several recent cases, including ones that originated as federal class-action lawsuits.

In this case, Sarbanand allegedly threatened and intimidated workers, and illegally fired about 70 who staged a one-day strike in 2017. Sarbanand and Munger deny the allegations.

Workers walked out after a colleague was taken from the farm in an ambulance. He later died at a hospital. L&I ruled the death was not workplace-related, but the farm came under scrutiny.

L&I fined Sarbanand for late meals and missed rest breaks. Two workers claimed violations of federal anti-trafficking laws. Coughenour approved making their claim a class-action suit involving about 600 workers.

L&I's filing was the latest in the run-up to a trial set for next year on the core allegation of mistreatment.

In a pre-trial ruling in June, Coughenour decided CSI should have had a farm labor contractor's license for 103 workers it helped go directly from Mexico to Washington.

However, he dismissed claims based on the 553 workers who first went to a Munger farm or cold storage facility in California and transferred later in the season to Washington.

Coughenour's ruling reduced the potential penalties against the defendants for violating the Farm Labor Contractors Act to roughly $250,000 from $1.5 million.

Columbia Legal Services and Seattle law firm Schroeter Goldmark and Bender have moved for Coughenour to either reconsider his decision or let the Supreme Court decide. That's the position L&I supports.

L&I "sees the potential for farm labor contractors to circumvent Washington law by first sending workers to other states before they work in Washington," the department's brief states.

CSI calls itself the largest H-2A processing company in Mexico. It argues it doesn't do what farm labor contractors do, including recruiting workers, and that its work stops at the border.

Munger picked most of the workers, while 67 applied through CSI's website, according to court records. The link to apply was mentioned on CSI's Facebook page.

CSI's compliance officer, Roxana Marcias, declared in court documents that she checked with an L&I agricultural employment standards specialist in 2014 or 2015 and again in 2017.

Both times the L&I official said CSI didn't need and couldn't get a license because it was a foreign company operating outside the U.S., according to Marcias.

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