Washington State Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments Sept. 14 at the Temple of Justice in Olympia on the question of whether employers should be mandated to pay their piece-rate workers a separate hourly rate for work not directly connected to production, such as training or waiting for equipment.
The Seattle attorney representing orchard workers argued that state law and case history says yes, especially for jobs of which workers can’t control the pace. Attorneys on the other side argued piece rate wages already cover those chores because they are necessary for production.
“The questions really is, what is an hour worked,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst said during questions.
Last year, Mariano Carranza and Eliseo Martinez, represented by Seattle attorney Marc Cote, filed a class action lawsuit against their employer Dovex Fruit Company of Wenatchee in U.S. District Court for allegedly refusing to pay for all time worked when they required meetings, maintaining equipment or hauling ladders to a trailer. They estimate 800 workers would qualify for the class. A federal judge certified the question to the Washington Supreme Court.
Cote told the justices that workers have no opportunity to speed up those tasks through efficiency and therefore can’t truly earn piece rate for them. On the other hand, moving ladders from tree to tree, emptying buckets into bins would not require a separate hourly rate because a worker can make those tasks go faster.
Clay Gatens, the attorney representing Dovex, argued to the justices that piece rate wages cover everything necessary to produce fruit — either tasks required by law or by the sheer nature of the work. Thus, safety trainings and travel to an orchard would be covered by piece rate, but not, for example, digging a ditch.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a court brief in favor of the workers. The Washington State Tree Fruit Association and the Washington Trucking Association has done the same in favor of Dovex.
The Supreme Court case comes two years after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of workers seeking hourly pay for their rest breaks separate from their piece-rate pay in a lawsuit against Sakuma Brothers Farms, a berry farm in Skagit County. The tree fruit industry has spent the past two years helping train orchardists how to comply with that ruling.