An Important Ruling for Farm Workers: Lopez Demetrio v. Sakuma

Dan Ford, Attorney, Immigrant Workers Group

On July 16th, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Columbia Legal Services farm worker clients, and the class they represent in Lopez Demetrio v. Sakuma, holding that agricultural piece rate workers, like other workers, are entitled to additional pay for rest breaks. As Justice Yu noted in the court opinion, this decision ensures that piece rate farm workers have the same protection from workplace injuries as other workers. The decision covers an estimated 180,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers. It is also likely to set a precedent for other piece rate jobs, such as truck driving, construction, and hotel housekeeping.

The Department of Labor and Industries requires that farm workers receive rest breaks “on the employer’s time.” Sakuma and other agricultural employers argued that piece rate wages (e.g., payment by the pound or box) compensate farm workers for their break time. The Court held that paying only piece rate wages, without any additional compensation for rest breaks, requires the workers to finance their own breaks. It reasoned that the only way to give meaning to the requirement that workers receive paid rest breaks is to require separate and additional compensation for rest breaks.

The Court emphasized the importance of providing breaks: “It is not enough  . . . to simply schedule time throughout the day during which an employee can take a break if he or she so chooses . . . [E]mployers must affirmatively promote meaningful break time.”  It also explained that rest breaks reduce the danger of workplace injuries by allowing employees to “sit, cool down, and rehydrate.”

Addressing the calculation of the rate of pay for rest breaks, the Court rejected Sakuma’s argument that piece rate workers are entitled to no more than the minimum wage. It held that being paid on the employer’s time means payment at the regular rate.  Therefore, piece rate farm workers must be paid for break time at their regular rate of pay, or the minimum wage, whichever is greater.

“Paid breaks for workers are a basic principle embodied in state law, and this decision ensures that some agricultural workers, who often perform difficult work for low pay, aren’t denied this right arbitrarily, based solely on their compensation method,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The case went to the Washington Supreme Court on certified questions from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.  The Supreme Court decision addressed questions relating to the workers’ motion for declaratory judgment. Much of the case was settled in 2014 for $850,000 on behalf of a class of about 900 workers. This was the largest settlement ever obtained for Washington farm workers. The law firm of Terrell Marshall Daudt & Willie, PLLC, represented the workers along with CLS.  

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