A federal judge in Washington state has thrown out the results of a Washington agricultural prevailing wage survey that would have resulted in lower farmworker pay by ignoring piece rates.

And while he was at it, Salvador Mendoza, U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Washington, delivered a scolding.

“With no proper safeguards in place, they (the U.S. Department of Labor) have abdicated their duty to protect the wages of domestic workers,” Mendoza wrote in the first paragraph of his 34-page order today. “Defendants cannot cloak the injustices created by the survey with the U.S. government seal of approval, turn away, and say ‘nothing to see here.’ This court will not allow that.”

Earlier this year, one Washington orchard worker and his union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, sued the Department of Labor for certifying a state wage survey for which some Washington apple and cherry growers allegedly reported only hourly rates, ignoring piece-rate pay. Working piece rate, farmworkers often earn more money per hour than they would on an hourly rate. The resulting prevailing wage would thus have come out lower. 

Each year, growers must pay the highest of prevailing wages, the H-2A Adverse Effect Wage Rate, contracted wages or state or federal minimum wages.

In his order, Mendoza mandated the Department of Labor revert to the previous wages based on the 2018 survey and conduct a new survey to certify new rates “within a reasonable amount of time.” 

Almost exactly a year ago, the same judge ruled against Washington blueberry producer Zirkle Fruit Co. of Yakima after the company challenged the Department of Labor’s 50-percent increase in prevailing wages for blueberry hand harvest in the middle of the season, based on wages determined by the same annual survey.

by Ross Courtney