July 16, 2015

Washington Supreme Court Rules on Piece-Rate Workers’ Rest Breaks

The Washington Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, ruled Thursday that piece-rate farmworkers must be paid separately for rest breaks. The court also addressed the question of the applicable rate of pay for piece-rate workers while taking rest periods. The court held that pieceworkers must be paid at least the minimum wage or the pieceworker’s regular rate of pay (i.e., average piece rate), whichever is greater.

“If rest breaks are compensated at a lower wage than the pieceworker’s regular rate, there is a strong incentive to miss rest breaks. That result frustrates the entire purpose” of the pay rules, Justice Mary I. Yu wrote for the court. This is essentially the same argument that California Labor Commissioner Julie Su has offered to support her conclusion that California piece-rate workers should be paid their average piece- rate while taking mandated rest breaks.

The case arises from a 2013 class-action lawsuit filed against Sakuma Brothers Farms (“Sakuma”), a berry farm in Northwest Washington State, for failing to provide paid rest breaks, among other claims. Sakuma settled with the plaintiffs in June 2014, but the parties could not agree on the rate piece-rate workers would be paid for rest breaks going forward. A federal judge granted the workers’ request to refer the question to the state supreme court. 

“While not binding in California, the Washington case will no doubt be cited as a persuasive state supreme court decision in future litigation challenging and exploring the scope of Bluford [v. Safeway Stores] as well as the labor commissioner’s interpretation on the proper rate of pay for rest breaks,” said Western Growers vice president and general counsel Jason Resnick. In Bluford, a California appellate court ruled that rest periods for piece-rate workers must be separately paid at the minimum wage or contracted hourly rate. Western Growers is among four associations that have filed a petition for writ of mandate challenging the labor commissioner’s interpretation.

For more information, contact Jason Resnick at (949) 885-2253.