SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that farmworkers paid a piece rate as they labor in fields and orchards must get additional wages for their other tasks during the course of a workday.
The 5-4 decision released Thursday affects wages in a vital part of the state’s economy: the agricultural industry that produces more than $10 billion of crops and livestock annually while employing nearly 100,000 farmworkers.
While the ruling is considered a victory for farmworkers, its practical effect is far from clear. The plaintiffs’ attorney says it will raise the pay of thousands of people who perform hard work in the fields and orchards. Some industry representatives questioned whether the workers would end up seeing any net increase in take-home pay.
The ruling puts new scrutiny on a farm-labor practice — piece rates — that ties wages to job productivity and are in widespread use during the fruit harvest season. The state Supreme Court found that the other tasks of piece-rate workers, such as unloading equipment at the day’s end or traveling between fields, should be tracked and then compensated through an hourly wage.
“It should not come as a surprise to growers that you have to pay workers for all their work,” said Marc Cote, a Seattle-based attorney who filed the proposed class-action lawsuit in February 2016 on behalf of two Dovex Fruit Co. workers that led to the decision. Cote said employers already are compensating for such time.