U.S.: Washington blueberry grower drums up support to block 50% wage increase

August 27 , 2019

In the wake of Washington state's mandate for a 50% pay increase for blueberry pickers, Zirkle Fruit Company has drummed up support in the industry for its lawsuit to block the Department of Labor’s prevailing wage rate for guest workers.

With the sharp pay rise, companies must now pay pickers 75 cents per pound for the fruit (almost 75 cents per half kilogram).

Harold Austin, director of orchard administration for Zirkle, said the increase would significantly affect his company.

This is especially true as the government made the ruling in the middle of the berry season, he added.

"The season is something we've already put funds aside for, planned strategically on how we're going to harvest, and what that's going to cost us," he explained to FreshFruitPortal.com.

"So it forces us to step back and reevaluate how to handle the rest of our harvesting for the duration of this season and then look ahead to what that means as we look to the future, depending on the outcome of the trial."

Zirkle Fruit questions gov't survey findings

The hearing is set to take place on August 29. At that time, a federal judge will decide whether to uphold the increase, officials said.

The federal government relies on the Washington state Employment Security Department (ESD) to assess the appropriate prevailing wage. It does this by surveying companies that hire blueberry pickers.

Yet Austin has questioned the ESD's survey findings.

"We've been participating in the federal guest or H2A program for 15 years and we've never seen such an increase occur. So we disagree that their findings are valid and accurate," he explained.

"That's why we chose to take this stance that we're taking. We're just trying to find out how the survey was conducted, when it was conducted, who were the growers. We just don't feel that they're right."

Zirkle Fruit aims for "stay of increases"

When asked about his expectations for the trial, Austin commented: "What we would hope to see is that there's a stay of these increases for this season and for the ESD and U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) to take another look at how these numbers are calculated."

A secondary concern is to address "whether or not the survey is something that ESD should be trying to move forward", he commented.

He stressed: "We're one of the few states that currently has that."

The ordered pay increase for blueberry pickers is part of a wide range of state-wide wage changes. The USDOL announced these pay rises on July 24.

Regarding the new mandate, Austin notes: "It impacts other commodities as well as blueberries. If you look at the results of the survey and the wages they're looking at, the apple harvest is an absolute trainwreck as well. So I know our entire apple industry is really having issues trying to figure out what to pay.

"It's a very convoluted, confusing, complex situation, with the set of numbers that they've sent out to the industry."

Wages aren't "one size fits all", says Zirkle

He asserted that blueberry players have tried to show the department how complicated and how complex harvest is. In his words: "It's not one size fits all."

Regarding the 50% increase, he specified: "That pricing may very well fit with some of the later types of berries - the ones that require multiple picks; with those, you're going to produce, pick, and harvest fewer tons.

"But in the earlier part of the season when you're dealing with some of the varieties that may only need to have two passes through the field or a slight third one, you're picking a lot more volume; a 50% increase in wages at those particular times of the year just doesn't make sense."

Zirkle has asserted that it is willing to increase the pay for its blueberry pickers, just at a more modest rate. In its petitions, Zirkle committed to paying its guest workers 50 cents per pound (almost 50 cents per .5 kilogram). It would offer a minimum of US$15.03 an hour.

In addition to paying guarantees, Zirkle is required to provide housing and transportation to visiting workers, reported the Tri-City Herald.

Future implications for the industry

If the wage increase should remain intact, Austin pointed to two likely changes in the industry. The first could be greater use of automation, and the second may be a change in which varieties are farmed.

"The varieties of berries differ. Some we can harvest a crop in two or three passes; some varieties it takes five or six passes to harvest those. So, it'll make us reassess the variety of the berries, how we're going to harvest those, is it economically feasible to go through and make all the passes that we currently do?

"I think we'll have to make some decisions on what strains of berries make sense."

Additionally, he emphasized that his company might end up relying more heavily on mechanical harvesting.

"These are all things that will come into play based off the decisions that get passed down by the court."

Lawsuit claimed "disingenuous" by farmworker entity

While Zirkle sued on its own behalf, the case is being watched by Washington agriculture industry leaders, reported the Tri-City Herald.

Thus far, the case has received mixed responses.

United Farm Workers (UFW), which represents blueberry and other farmworkers across Washington, was not moved by the company's pending lawsuit.

Erik Nicholson, UFW’s national vice president, has called Zirkle’s complaint "disingenuous".

Meanwhile, a number of other entities are standing in solidarity with Zirkle Fruit.

Jon DeVaney of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, Alan Schreiber of the Washington Blueberry Commission, Brian Etzkorn of Yakima’s Roy Farms Inc. and Michael Gempler of the Washington Growers League have all filed motions supporting Zirkle’s motion for an injunction.

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