State labor authorities have rewritten their guidelines on how farmers should pay piece-rate employees separately for breaks, lining up with a state Supreme Court decision earlier this year.
Wednesday, the state Department of Labor and Industry released the changes with the publication of an Administrative Policy on Meal and Rest Breaks for Agricultural Workers.
The new manual language echoes the July opinion by the state’s highest court that all piece-rate agricultural employees are entitled under Washington labor law to a 10-minute rest break paid over and above the wages they earn for each tree they prune or box they fill.
Agricultural officials have long argued the change will drive up labor costs for Central Washington’s fruit growers, who typically spend about half of their operating expenses on labor. In 2013, the state’s fruit growers paid $915 million in wages overall, some through salaries, some hourly wages, some piece-rate.
The issue started with a federal lawsuit in which several agricultural workers sued a Skagit County farm employer for a variety of alleged workplace complaints. The suit was settled, but the U.S. District Court sent the rest break issue to the state court.
State regulations had long mandated that employers cover the cost of rest breaks for all industries, including agriculture. Farmers often choose to pay their workers per unit of production — per apple bin filled for example — which state law allowed as long as everyone ended up with at least the minimum wage at the end of the pay period.
Groups that represent growers and other business owners argued that rest break pay was already in piece-rate wages because workers could take breaks anytime they wanted. Workforce representatives countered that the laissez-faire policy encouraged employees to work through breaks at the expense of their health and safety.
To comply with the decision, most growers have begun forcing their employers to take scheduled breaks.
“By and large, people are just enforcing the breaks because the employees by and large don’t want to take them,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, which represents farmers in labor matters.
Some grower representatives fear the Supreme Court’s opinion would open up growers to claims for back wages, though nothing has been presented to courts yet, said Brendan Monahan, a Yakima attorney who often represents growers in labor issues.