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Berry Pickers Battle Sakuma Bros. Farms In Court Over Housing Policy Change

David Cravioto
Martin Barrera is hopeful that he'll be able to live in Sakuma's worker housing this summer along with his wife and three children

Even as the summer berry season gets underway, some of the workers who pick those berries have been battling with a Skagit County farm in court. They’ve challenged Sakuma Brothers Farms over its new policy to no longer provide housing for workers’ family members. 

One of those workers is Irma Santiago, 23, who has worked at the farm for about seven years. Every year, she travels from Stockton, California to Skagit County to pick berries for Sakuma in the summer. 

Santiago, who now has a 3-month-old baby, says being able to live for free in the labor camp with her baby is an important part of her compensation. Because she works seasonally, she has to save as much as possible in the summer to get through the winter.

Santiago sees Sakuma’s new policy as punishment for workers like her who went on strike last year. That's what she and other members of the workers' association Familias Unidas por la Justicia have been arguing in a Skagit County court this week.

'Why This Year?'

Rosalinda Guillen, who works for the farm worker advocacy group Community to Community Development, says for decades, farm workers have lived in the labor camps with their families, and it's part of the rural culture. 

"Their argument is: why this year? Why so sudden?" Guillen said. "And they're connecting it to their strikes and the formation of their union and saying this is a reprisal."

Attorney Adam Belzberg, who represents Sakuma Brothers Farms, denies that the farm changed its policy in retaliation for the strikes. He says the farm has to use those worker cabin beds to attract employees, after facing a labor shortage the past couple of years.

"Primarily, there’s just not enough room," Belzberg said. "We expect we need 500 people to pick the crops this year, and there are 390 some odd bed spaces."

The two sides are now waiting for Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan Cook to issue a decision. An attorney for Familias Unidas, Kathy Barnard, says she expects a decision next Thursday after closing arguments.

Wage And Hour Settlement

Last week, Sakuma reached a settlement agreement with workers in a different case over complaints that allege they hadn't been paid for all hours worked and were denied rest breaks. The farm agreed to pay $850,000 to bring the case to a close. Of that amount, $500,000 will be split among workers and the rest will cover attorney fees. 

Sakuma also agreed to make changes to its work practices, including providing rest breaks and eliminating unpaid work. The farm owners said they agreed to settle even though they believed they would ultimately prevail, because a prolonged court case could have taken years to resolve and potentially cost millions of dollars.

The workers' attorneys said the case yielded the largest farm worker wage and hour settlement in Washington state history.  

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.