SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. -- As they stood before a judge Wednesday, the courtroom was unfamiliar ground for workers much more familiar with the berry fields of Skagit County.
For decades families have been allowed to stay rent-free with their families during the summer harvest at Sakuma Farms, but this year things are different. The farm recently announced that housing will only be provided for those working in the fields. Spouses and children have to find somewhere else to live.
"It’s not fair. It’s not just. Something has to change here in Skagit County," said farm worker advocate Rosalinda Guillen.
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Workers say the move is in retaliation for unionization and a series of strikes last year seeking better pay. The farm’s owners say they lost a million dollars in fruit during last year’s unrest and they need to house as many able-bodied pickers as possible this year.
"Our challenge now is to remain competitive," said Steve Sakuma. "We have to offer jobs and housing to those who can work."
Workers are now asking Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan Cook to order Sakuma to house pickers and their families. A ruling in their favor would set a precedent where growers across Washington might have to offer free family housing as well.
"If that happens, the cost goes up. Liability goes along with it. And there’s the regulatory oversight that’s a constant pressure issue," said Sakuma.
"It’s better for the local economy for farm workers to live well, earn a decent wage and spend that money here locally," countered Guillen.
The court entered a stipulated order that people who missed work last year for any strike activity are eligible to apply for employment with Sakuma this year.