Washington Supreme Court Issues Ruling Requiring Separate Compensation For Rest Breaks
By: Susannah L. Ashton
The Washington Supreme Court today issued its decision in Demetrio, et al. v. Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc. At issue was whether agricultural employees who work on a pure piece rate basis be paid separately for their breaks, and if so, how?
Sakuma Brothers Farms (“Sakuma”), a berry farm in Northwest Washington State, were sued in 2013 for failing to provide paid rest breaks, providing all compensation, and keeping poor wage statements. They settled with the Plaintiffs in June 2014 for all retroactive claims, but failed to agree on whether, going forward, Sakuma must compensate its piece rate agricultural workers separately for rest breaks, or whether rest break pay is already built into the piece rate wages.
The matter went to the Washington Supreme Court in March of this year. Counsel for the plaintiffs argued what Californians may recognize as the “Julie Su” argument – that is, that employers must create an incentive for its workers to rest, and that this may be accomplished by compensating them at a rate beyond the piece rate. In response, Sakuma’s counsel argued that compensating workers separately for rest breaks would amount to extra compensation.
In their decision, the Washington Supreme Court looked to past interpretations of their statute to hold that piece rate compensation does not adequately compensate workers for the time not spent picking fruit, e.g., nonproductive time (“NPT”), and therefore, agriculture employers must separately compensate such employees for rest periods. The Court then turned to the issue of how such time must be compensated.
The Court again looked to past interpretations of their regulations and determined that whether the time in question is productive or not, it is time spent working for the employer, and thus the time may be “paid at the same rate (minimum wage).” (Emphasis in original). Therefore, the Court held that any “pay separate from the piece rate must equal at least the applicable minimum age or the pieceworker’s regular rate of pay, whichever is greater.” Further, to determine a piece rate worker’s “regular rate of pay,” the Washington Court provided a formula for averaging the workers’ piece rate hours during the week.
The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in Sakuma should not come as a surprise to California employers. Indeed, this holding mimics the California Labor Commissioner Julie Su’s interpretation of Bluford vs. Safeway Stores, Inc. Agriculture employers should be aware that to be in compliance with wage and hour laws, piece rate employees must be compensated for each and every hour worked at a rate that is at least the minimum wage. This rule was further upheld last week in a ruling The Saqui Law Group received from the Monterey Superior Court in which class allegations for failure to compensate for NPT were stricken on the basis that the employer compensated its employees for every hour worked at the higher of the minimum wage or piece rate.