YAKIMA - According to Columbia Legal Services, a farmer worker from Sunnyside, Washington and his union, “Familias Unidas por la Justicia, AFL-CIO (FUJ), filed a lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order in federal court against the U.S. Department of Labor over lowered piece-rate wages. Tree fruit workers typically earn higher piece-rate wages.

“Instead of receiving a hazard pay increase for working during the COVID crisis, farm workers in Washington state may have their wages slashed for doing dangerous and essential work,” the legal group stated in a press release.

“Torres Hernandez and FUJ seek immediate declaratory and injunctive relief for DOL’s role in arbitrarily interjecting an “hourly wage guarantee” concept into Washington’s prevailing wage surveys. The flawed survey methodology, which mirrors changes advocated by the agricultural industry, watered down wages reported by growers; the prevailing wage was determined to be $12 per hour – $18 less than what Plaintiff Torres Hernandez normally earns on piece-rate wages picking cherries by the pound,” the legal advocacy group explained.

Columbia Legal Services says the flawed survey methodology could reduce poverty-level wages by an additional 30%.

 “It is hard work but if I work fast, I can fill five bins of cherries in about eight hours and make more than $30 per hour,” said Torres Hernandez. “If I am paid minimum wage instead of a piece rate, I would lose over $3,400 each year.”

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs says the federal government should not be aiding the fruit industry when it has a duty to protect workers from practices that drive down wages.  

Plaintiffs are also represented in this case by Kathy Barnard of Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP.