Employment Law Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law and HR

Jun 19, 2018

Pay Washington agricultural piece-rate workers for nonproductive time

Wage and Hour 

The Washington Supreme Court has ruled that employers are required to compensate agricultural piece-rate workers on a separate hourly basis for all nonproductive time spent performing activities outside of piece-rate picking work. This nonproductive time must be paid at the applicable minimum wage or a contractually agreed rate, whichever is higher.

The ruling arises from a class action lawsuit by seasonal and migrant agricultural workers. They alleged that their employer violated state and federal law by failing to separately pay them for nonproductive work activities when they didn’t have an opportunity to earn wages under the piece-rate system. The court ruled that the plain language of Washington’s minimum wage statute (RCW 49.46.020) requires employers to pay at least the applicable minimum wage per hour, with no exceptions. The court then sent the case back down to the trial court to decide what activities were outside the scope of piece-rate work. For example, the workers acknowledged that moving a ladder between trees in the field was within the scope of their piece-rate work, but maintained that moving a ladder from the truck to the field was not (Carranza v. Dovex Fruit Co., Wash, May 2018).

Tips for Employers 

Interpretation Not Limited to Agricultural Workers

Although in this case, the court limited its ruling to agricultural workers because that was the question at hand, the Washington statute it interpreted applies to both agricultural and non-agricultural workers.

Employers may recall a case on which we previously reported, where the Washington Supreme Court interpreted a rest break regulation for agricultural workers (WAC 296-131-020(2)) to say that employers must separately pay for piece-rate workers’ rest breaks (Demetrio v. Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc., Wash, July 2015). The court’s most recent decision tackles a broader range of nonproductive work time, not just rest breaks.

How to Calculate Rate of Pay for Nonproductive Work

To calculate the rate of pay for nonproductive work time, the court said the employer should divide the total amount of piece-rate earnings by the number of hours spent on productive piece-rate work during the workweek. Assuming this rate is at least minimum wage, it must be multiplied by the number of hours of nonproductive work time during the workweek.

Pay Calculation Resources for Employers

If you pay employees on a piece-rate basis, see our Legal Guide, Piece-Rate Method of Compensation.

For detailed advice about how to calculate the rate of pay, inquire about Vigilant membership. Members have unlimited access to a dedicated employment law attorney who can answer hard-hitting questions and help with compliance.

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