Blueberry season is half over. Feds say growers must pay pickers 50% more

One of Washington’s largest blueberry growers is threatening to cut short the 2019 harvest and replace human pickers with machines next year.

That’s the company’s reaction to a recent mandatory pay rate increase for guest workers.

Selah-based Zirkle Fruit is suing in federal court to block the Department of Labor’s 75 cent-a-pound prevailing wage piece rate for guest workers.

The 50 percent rate increase, which was announced July 24 and took effect the day before, would be “calamitous” to its business, said the suit.

The blueberry harvest began in June and continues until September, meaning a significant portion of the 2019 harvest remains unpicked.

The company filed suit last week in U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington. The case is assigned to Judge Salvador Mendoza Jr.

Zirkle confirmed to the Tri-City Herald on Friday that it is proceeding with the blueberry harvest pending the outcome of an Aug 12 hearing.

Mid-season wage increase

However, without an injunction, it will consider more dramatic measures.

“(T)his unilateral, mid-season 50% wage hike will likely result in Zirkle declining to harvest significant amounts of blueberries, which will put hundreds of farm workers out of work, and will likely eliminate hand-picking from its 2020 production,” the company said in the lawsuit.

Zirkle is asking a judge to block a 50 percent increase in the piecemeal rate paid to blueberry pickers. Shane White/Dreamstime TNS

United Farm Workers, which represents blueberry and other farm workers across Washington, is reviewing the case.

Erik Nicholson, UFW’s national vice president with responsibility for the Northwest and international affairs, called Zirkle’s complaint “disingenuous.”

But Zirkle questioned the methodology used by the government to set the prevailing wage rate at 75 cents per pound.

The federal government relies on the Washington state Employment Security Department to assess the appropriate prevailing wage by surveying companies that hire blueberry pickers.

In its suit, Zirkle said the state agency improperly computed the prevailing wage by failing to consider the different ways different farms measure the volume that workers picks.

The UFW’s Nicholson said Zirkle could have influenced the prevailing wage calculations.

“Zirkle and other blueberry growers had every opportunity to participate in the survey,” Nicholson said.

A Zirkle attorney confirmed the company did not participate in the wage survey.

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Workers cull blueberries picked in Burbank before packaging them for market. Blueberries aren’t processed after the harvest. For consumers, the picker is the last person who touched the berry. Tri-City Herald File

Brendan Monahan, with Stokes Lawrence Velikanje Moore & Shore, the Yakima firm representing Zirkle, said the government already confirmed Zirkle’s wages and they would have been excluded from the computations that led to the 75-cent figure.

“(I)ts participation would have been a waste of time for everyone,” Monahan said.

Guest workers guaranteed pay

Also, Zirkle notes the government approved its applications to bring in 2,750 foreign workers under the H2A visa program.

In its petitions, Zirkle committed to paying its guest workers 50 cents per pound and a minimum of $15.03 an hour.

In addition to pay guarantees, Zirkle is required to provide housing and transportation to visiting workers.

Washington’s 250 blueberry producers expect to produce about 140 million pounds of blueberries on 20,000 acres this year. Tri City Herald File

The company said it has met its commitment to its pickers.

Through July 22, Zirkle crews:

Picked nearly 9.6 million pounds of blueberries.

Were paid nearly $4.7 million at the 50-cent rate — translating into an effective hourly rate of $17.13.

Have about 5 million pounds left to pick this season.

The 75-cent rate would add $1.4 million in wage and administrative expenses, potentially wiping out the 2019 blueberry season’s profits.

A Department of Labor spokesman declined to comment on the case.

Machines vs. humans harvesting

Washington’s 250 blueberry producers expect to produce about 140 million pounds of blueberries on 20,000 acres this year.

According to Zirkle, 70 percent of that will be harvested by machine.

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About 70 percent of Washington’s 140 million pounds of blueberries will be harvested by machine. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Zirkle is an outlier for its reliance on workers rather than machines. Monahan, its attorney, said the company believes hand picking produces better fruit.

In that respect, Zirkle and United Farm Workers agree: Human pickers are better than machine ones.

Blueberries aren’t processed after the harvest. For consumers, the picker is the last person who touched the berry, Nicholson said.

“I care a lot about the person whose hand last touched the fruit,” he said. “Customers need to care about what’s happening in the field.”

Zirkle sued on its own behalf, but the case it being watched by Washington agriculture industry leaders.

Jon DeVaney of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, Alan Schreiber of the Washington Blueberry Commission, Brian Etzkorn of Yakima’s Roy Farms Inc. and Michael Gempler of the Washington Growers League filed motions supporting Zirkle’s motion for an injunction.

Harold Austin, a Zirkle executive who serves on the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Organic Advisory Board, also filed a motion in support of Zirkle’s petition.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.