Stemilt Growers orchard Gala apples Mattawa Grant County standing

Stemilt Growers employee Abraham De La Cruz reaches for Gala apples in an orchard near the Columbia River bluffs Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, near Mattawa. (ROSS COURTNEY/Yakima Herald-Republic)

WENATCHEE — A pending class-action settlement would force Stemilt Ag Services to pay more than half a million dollars to fieldworkers for rest breaks taken during harvest and cultivation.

The company, an orchard-management subsidiary of tree-fruit giant Stemilt Growers, would pay $562,338 if the settlement is approved by a judge in February, benefiting 4,447 current and former orchard workers for labor they did in 2014 and 2015.

Stemilt Ag Services and chief plaintiff Francisco Flores Olivares won preliminary approval of their proposed settlement Sept. 26 in Chelan County Superior Court, heading off a trial that would have tested the state Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling on piece-rate payment for agricultural workers.

Stemilt Ag Services operates and managers orchards for fruit growers throughout the Wenatchee Valley and beyond. Olivares was among workers employed by the firm between Jan. 17, 2014, and July 15, 2015, earning a productivity-based “piece rate” for agricultural work.

In July 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Demetrio v. Sakuma Brothers that farmworkers who are paid a piece rate must also be separately compensated for rest breaks. Olivares sued last January on behalf of himself and fellow Stemilt Ag Services workers, claiming the company had not paid rest-break compensation during the employment period. Stemilt disputed the claims and denied any wrongdoing.

The two sides entered mediation last June, court records show, and Stemilt provided relevant employment and pay records. Negotiators agreed to rest-break compensation based on the $13.4 million gross amount Stemilt paid for about 492,000 piece-rate hours over the eight-month period.

The $562,338 gross settlement amount includes $123,714 in attorneys’ fees, $10,000 in litigation costs, a $25,000 fee to administrate settlement payouts and $5,000 to Olivares as the class representative. Once claims are disbursed, court records show, the average Stemilt worker in the class would receive $89.63.

Growers are still sorting out the impacts of the Demetrio ruling, both in litigation and in legislation. A separate class action suit brought by workers against Wenatchee’s Dovex Fruit Co. asks whether workers should be paid for non-picking tasks such as moving equipment, meetings and training. It’s now under review by the state Supreme Court.

A state Senate bill, sponsored in part by 12th District Sen. Brad Hawkins, was introduced this year to allow ag employers to avoid liability under Demetrio by seeking out and paying remedial rest-break wages at a 4 percent rate to former workers, or to the Department of Labor and Industries if those workers could not be located. The bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House in July.

“It isn’t fair that a class-action lawsuit is my source of clarity to pay my team members,” Stemilt president West Mathison testified before the Senate agriculture committee last February. “That’s not right,”

Stemilt said in class-action case filings that it disputes the validity of the Supreme Court decision, arguing that the state Legislature had repealed the underlying statute cited in Demetrio in 1993 and that rest-break compensation cannot be applied retroactively.

Stemilt spokeswoman Brianna Shales said Thursday the company would not comment on the settlement. Plaintiffs’ attorneys India Lin Bodien of Tacoma and Craig Ackermann of Los Angeles could not be reached.

The parties’ joint motion asks Judge Alicia Nakata to give final approval in a hearing scheduled for Feb. 8. Nakata announced earlier this month that she would retire from the bench Jan. 1, meaning another judge would have to oversee the settlement if it is not concluded by then.