A Selah, Washington, fruit company won an early round in its lawsuit against federal and state labor authorities Thursday when a judge temporarily stopped a mandated midseason wage hike for blueberry pickers.
Zirkle Fruit Co., one of Washington’s largest blueberry producers, was granted a preliminary injunction by Judge Salvador Mendoza in the U.S. District Court in Richland, Washington. The injunction prevents the U.S. Department of Labor and the Washington Employment Security Department from enforcing a 50-percent wage increase for contracted blueberry harvest workers, said Brendan Monahan of the Stokes Lawrence law firm in Yakima, Washington, representing the company.
The mandate, issued July 24, would boost prevailing wages for Zirkle’s 1,900 domestic and H-2A contracted workers harvesting blueberries by hand from 50 cents per pound to 75 cents per pound.
Thursday’s decision does not mean Zirkle won the lawsuit, but it sets the table for a bench trial, where Zirkle will ask to have the wage hike negated, Monahan said.
“We are very confident that we will succeed on the merits of this case,” he said.
A date for that trial has not been set.
In the meantime, as stipulated in the injunction, Zirkle will hold the extra wages in an interest-bearing account, Monahan said. If the company loses at the bench trial, it will immediately pay those wages to the workers.
Zirkle filed suit on Aug. 7 for itself and the injunction is specific to that company, Monahan said. But the wage hike applies to everybody who hires H-2A blueberry pickers. He is unsure if the Department of Labor would try to enforce the increase on other companies.
In Washington, midseason adjustments to prevailing wages are common, intended to prevent contracted foreign workers on H-2A visas from missing out on shifts in the volatile labor market, Monahan said. They sometimes even go down. In the same mandate as the blueberry increase, the government announced milder increases for the harvest of Bartlett pears and Lapins cherries. Zirkle is not challenging those.
“It’s a reasonable concept and I don’t think most farmers object to it,” Monahan said.
By law, the increases also benefit domestic workers doing the same work on the same farms as the H-2A workers.
In this case, however, Zirkle takes issue with the size of the pay increase and challenges the methods by which the state and federal authorities arrived at the amount, he said.
Also, between now and the bench trial, Zirkle will attempt to modify its claim to challenge a mandated boost for apple pickers, Monahan said. Other production companies had tried to join Zirkle’s claim for that reason, but Mendoza rejected their intervention because the boost related to a different product.
—by Ross Courtney