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Farmworkers entitled to minimum wage for some tasks, high court says

FILE - Workers harvest apples on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, in an orchard outside Quincy. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Workers harvest apples on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, in an orchard outside Quincy. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Farmworkers in Washington who are being paid a piece-work rate must be paid minimum wage for the time they spend doing other tasks, a divided state Supreme Court said Thursday.

In response to a question from a federal judge, a bare majority of the court said the state’s minimum wage law plainly requires employers to pay their adult workers at least minimum wage for the hours worked. They can’t average the amount they get from piece-work with a lesser hourly wage for other tasks so that the weekly paycheck totals the amount that would be paid under minimum wage.

“There is no exception, other statutory provision, or judicial or executive interpretation that allows employers to evade the plain language in the context presented,” Justice Mary Yu wrote in a majority opinion signed by four other justices.

The case involves a possible class-action suit in U.S. District Court between farm workers and the Dovex Fruit Co. of Wenatchee over wages and working conditions. U.S. District Judge Salvador Mendoza asked the state’s highest court for an interpretation of the Washington Minimum Wage Act, which is under dispute by the two sides.

Dovex argued that workers who are being paid by the piece for picking fruit were adequately compensated for other work they did that wasn’t related to picking. The workers argued that some work that is connected to picking – going up and down ladders, moving ladders, emptying fruit into bins – is covered by the piece rate, but other nonpicking activities are not, and for that work they should receive minimum wage.

The high court majority sided with the workers on the point that activities outside of piece work should be compensated at minimum wage. Some businesses are allowed to average piece-rate wages with hourly wages, but agricultural workers are expressly exempt from that regulation.

“We are not asked to decide which, if any, tasks are outside of piece-rate picking work in this case, and we do not attempt to do so,” Yu wrote.

The pay for these other tasks must be the minimum wage or a negotiated rate, whichever is higher, she said.

Justice Debra Stephens disagreed, saying state law requires a minimum wage rate for every hour worked, but not separate compensation at minimum wage for hours that don’t involve piece-work. It simply requires employers to pay “the equivalent of the minimum wage rate for each hour worked.” If the piece-work rate is at least equal to the amount of minimum hourly wage for all hours worked, that complies with the law, she said.

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