More than 400 farmworkers file for back pay from Sakuma

Don Jenkins/Capital Press Sakuma Bros. Farms grows, processes and trucks its fruit from its operations in Burlington, Wash., in Skagit County. The company has been embroiled in a series of labor disputes.

More than 400 piece-rate pickers are in line to share $500,000 from Sakuma Brothers Farms to settle the largest farmworker class-action lawsuit ever in Washington, according to court filings.

The lawsuit alleged the Burlington, Wash., berry company failed to pay workers for all the time they spent on the job, in violation of state wage laws and federal migrant labor laws.

Sakuma denied all wrongdoing, but agreed to compensate workers and pay their legal fees. The out-of-court settlement will cost the company a total of $850,000.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman is scheduled to review the settlement Nov. 14 in Seattle. The judge must determine whether the settlement benefits workers and whether their lawyers’ fees are reasonable.

Some 923 farmworkers were eligible to claim back pay. By the Oct. 16 deadline, 407 workers had filed claims, according to a brief filed Oct. 31 by Seattle attorney Marc Cote, one of several lawyers representing the workers.

Another three workers missed the deadline by one day, but may be included in the settlement. No matter how many workers file claims, Sakuma has committed to paying no less or no more than $500,000 for back wages.

Workers will receive $8.85 for each day they worked, Cote said.

Attorneys reported in mid-September that workers filed claims ranging from a single day to 390 days.

Sakuma’s lawyer, Adam Belzberg, said Monday the company will join the plaintiffs in asking Pechman to approve the settlement.

“Sakuma still looks forward to settling the suit and moving on with business, without accepting any liability,” he said. “I would expect the court to approve it.”

The burden of persuading Pechman that the settlement is fair to farmworkers will fall to the workers’ attorneys.

The plaintiffs originally estimated more than 1,200 people who worked for Sakuma between 2010 and 2013 would be eligible for back pay. The number was reduced because some workers were listed more than once on company records, often because of variations in spelling.

Lawyers say they tried to contact eligible workers by various means, including broadcasting radio announcements on Spanish-language stations in California. They particularly targeted Madera and Santa Maria, where many Sakuma seasonal workers live.

In many cases, mailed notices came back as undeliverable. In the end, less than half of the eligible workers filed claims. Nevertheless, Cote said he considers the claim rate high for a class-action lawsuit, particularly one involving migrant workers.

“We feel very good about the claim rate,” he said.

In court documents, lawyers estimated workers could have won up to $1 million if a jury found in their favor.

Trial outcomes, however, are uncertain, and workers might have been reluctant to testify for fear of retaliation or deportation, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The settlement, which Cote called the largest of its type ever in Washington, will ensure workers receive back pay immediately, rather than go through prolonged litigation, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Also, the lawyers said they were concerned about whether Sakuma could pay a larger settlement.

Besides the $500,000 pool for back wages, Sakuma will pay $344,000 to the workers’ legal representatives.

The two named plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, Ana Lopez Demetrio and Francisco Eugenio Paz, will split the remaining $6,000.

Lawyers and legal staff working on behalf of the workers have hourly rates between $100 and $400, according to court filings. Cote, a lawyer with the Seattle law firm Terrell Marshall Daudt & Willie, has an hourly rate of $300, according to court files.

Daniel Ford, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit legal aid program, has an hourly rate of $375, according to court files. Several other lawyers and legal staff have been involved in the case.

They said they spent three months and interviewed approximately 200 Sakuma workers before a mediation session settled the lawsuit.

Cote said the attorney fees were “actually pretty conservative” for this type of lawsuit.

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