Labor leaders say new hourly wage could lower pay for fastest berry pickers.
The new CEO of one of Washington state’s largest berry growers issued a new pay structure Thursday that failed to impress labor leaders.
After years of labor unrest over wages and housing issues, Sakuma Brothers Farm this summer plans to pay pickers $10 per hour, plus a production bonus based on the number of pounds picked, replacing the old rate per pound picked.
Sakuma CEO Danny Weeden, who joined the Burlington, Skagit County, farm in March, said in a statement, “We’ve been paying pretty good under a piece-rate program. This is even a richer program.”
This year, for strawberries and blueberries, the production bonus will be a maximum of $17 per hour in addition to the hourly rate — meaning a worker could potentially earn up to $27 per hour, Weeden said. For blackberries, the production bonus is $23 per hour.
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Weeden said during the 2014 season, strawberry pickers averaged $12.66 per hour.
Ramon Torres, president of workers’ group Familias Unidas por la Justicia, said putting a $17 per hour cap on the production bonus, however, could mean the fastest pickers may end up earning less.
“They are actually not raising wages, they are lowing wages,” said Torres, who worked at Sakumas in 2012 and 2013.
Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community, which is providing support to Familias Unidas, also expressed doubts about the plan solving its wage dispute.
“That is the complicated response to what should be a very simple,” she said. “Are they going to take complaints and challenges to the number of pounds that comes out on the paychecks?”
What the labor leaders would prefer is a straight $15 per hour wage.
The Sakuma family has been farming in Burlington since 1935, and has four generations of family members working for the company, which grows strawberries, blackberries and blueberries on Skagit Valley fields.
Third-generation leader Steven Sakuma stepped down in March to make way for Weeden, who has more than 25 years in the food industry, and was most recently the general manager of Oregon Cherry Growers in Salem, Ore.
“The challenges faced by our family business over the past three years demonstrated the need for a leader with the experience and skills to ensure the future of the Sakuma family business,” Steven Sakuma said last month. He is now board chairman.
The business continues to face legal battles with farmworkers, who have taken the company to court in recent years over pay and housing issues, and have led strikes and boycotts of the local farm.
The state Supreme Court heard a case last month on whether Sakuma should pay farmworkers during rest breaks. No matter what the decision, Weeden said, it will not have an impact on this season because of the new wage structure.
“It takes the high road and gets away from all of that,” he said.
Weeden also said the company will provide a weekly $25 housing stipend for harvest pickers who do not live in the companyhousing during the harvest season.
Information in this article, originally published April 16, 2015, was corrected April 17, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that workers group Familias Unidas por la Justicia had sued Sakuma Brothers Farm over wage issues. The suit, which Sakuma settled last year, was filed by former workers.