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Washington state farmworkers sue U.S. Department of Labor over depressed wages

caption: Apple trees on a farm in Eastern Washington.
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Apple trees on a farm in Eastern Washington.
Anna King for N3 & KUOW

A group of Washington state farmworkers is suing the U.S. Department of Labor, saying the agency allows employers to exclude them from work by hiring cheaper, foreign labor.

The farmworkers, who belong to the Familias Unidas por la Justicia labor union in Skagit County, are asking a federal judge to compel the department to revise its wages to be more competitive so they can make a better living.

The Department of Labor did away with its prevailing wage system in 2022, which set a standard wage for agriculture workers based on average wages reported via survey. On Friday, the Seattle-based Columbia Legal Services filed a court injunction seeking to make the Department of Labor temporarily return to using prevailing wage rules from 2022 as the lawsuit moves forward.

The Department of Labor’s wage for temporary visa workers in Washington state is currently set at $19.25, about three dollars above the state minimum wage. The problem is that at peak harvest time, a seasoned worker living in the U.S. can often make around $28, said Edgar Franks with Familias Unidas Por La Justicia.

That makes it easy for growers to undercut local farmworkers and outsource labor to foreign nationals instead, he said.

“That's a big hit for farmworkers that have been doing apple-picking for a long time,” Franks said. “And they're really good and look forward to picking the crops in peak season to make ends meet.”

The farmworkers say that these days, wages set by the Department of Labor are outdated and inconsistent. They say they want the department to recalculate that current $19.25 wage to be more competitive, among other things.

“The Department of Labor is failing to protect local workers’ wages, which hurts farmworker families and drives them out of jobs that they otherwise would have taken,” said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney with the Seattle-based Columbia Legal Services who is representing the farmworkers.

“Local workers need protection for local, free market wages against the depressive effects of bringing in workers from places where the economy is depressed and they will accept any wage offered,” she added.

The Department of Labor declined KUOW’s request for comment on the case.

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