A group of farmworkers is attempting to enforce their rights to paid rest breaks and Farmworker Justice's litigation team has been supporting their efforts. The workers, who picked berries at Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington, sued to enforce several state and federal employment laws. Those workers have now taken their battle to the Washington Supreme Court, where they seek a ruling that would prevent Washington growers from escaping their legal duty to pay workers for their rest breaks.
Sakuma’s berry pickers (like many farmworkers across the country) are currently paid on a piece-rate basis, meaning that they earn money based on how many berries they pick – typically, a piece-rate worker is paid a certain amount of money for each bucket they fill. Piece rate wages are low, forcing workers to be as quick and efficient as possible to maximize their income.
While Sakuma Brothers does allow its workers to take rest breaks, it admits in court filings that it did not pay its berry pickers separately for their rest breaks. Instead, their pay was calculated by simply multiplying the amount of berries they picked by the piece rate. As a result, farmworkers could either choose to make extra money by working through their rest breaks or to take their rest breaks and receive no pay for the time they spent resting.
Sakuma argues that the piece rate they pay their workers includes pay for rest breaks. Since no Washington court has yet decided the issue, the state’s Supreme Court took the issue on. There, the workers argued that the state’s farmworker rest break law – which gives farmworkers the right to rest breaks “on the employer’s time” – entitles them to separate pay for their rest breaks.
With the help of the National Employment Law Project, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, and Migrant Clinicians’ Network, Farmworker Justice filed an amicus curiae brief with the Court, arguing that unpaid rest breaks are harmful to workers’ health.
Farmwork is among the most dangerous jobs in the country. The risk for injury continues to get worse throughout the day – the longer a worker has been picking berries, the more likely he or she is to get injured. Scientific studies of rest breaks show that they have a profound impact on injury rates. One short rest break is enough to reduce a worker’s risk of injury to its baseline level.
As Sakuma admits, piece rate workers will often work through their rest breaks if they are unpaid. Workers feel as though they cannot afford to take an off-the-clock break, so they continue working even though it puts them at risk of injury.
The Capital Ag Press cited the brief in an article on the lawsuit, noting that the brief makes the argument that workers will forego their rest breaks. What that article fails to mention is the crux of the brief – that in order to ensure that the worker protections in Washington’s rest break laws are meaningful, the court must require growers to pay their piece rate employees separately for their rest breaks. Otherwise, the promise of a paid rest break will mean nothing for Washington’s many piece rate workers.