Sakuma Brothers Farms Opts Out of Guest Worker Program

Jun 02, 2014, 18:30 ET from Sakuma Brothers Farms

BURLINGTON, Wash., June 2, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- Despite a worsening labor shortage in Washington State, Sakuma Brothers Farms announced today that it has decided to not participate in the federal government's H-2A Guest Worker program in 2014.  The company had applied for the program but notified the federal government over the weekend that it has decided to not participate.

"The last year was a very difficult year for our family, our family business and our community. Since the season ended, our family met with a number of community leaders and we decided it was best for our community to see if we could meet our farm labor requirements by hiring domestic workers for the upcoming season," said Steve Sakuma, of Sakuma Brothers Family Business.  He added, "We recognize that it is a risk to go in this direction given that the H-2A program provided us a safety net for securing a labor force but we are hopeful that working with local community farm worker advocates we will be able to hire the work force we need."

Washington State agriculture is facing continued shortages of able, willing, qualified and eligible workers.  Sakuma Brothers had to leave more than 900,000 pounds of berries unpicked in the fields in the last two years because it did not have enough labor to pick the highly-perishable berries which necessitated its decision to participate in the federal government's H-2A guest worker program. While the Guest Worker program provided the company with a stable supply of workers last year, it caused some unrest in the community. Even though Sakuma Brothers accounted for less than one percent of all the guest workers employed in the State of Washington in 2013, people who opposed the H-2A program protested Sakuma's involvement.

"It was sobering to witness the protests against our family-owned business and hear calls for a boycott against our berries," said Sakuma.  He added, "But, even though we have been in business for nearly 80 years, we listened to our critics and we recognized that we could do better."

Since the end of harvest last year, Sakuma Brothers has taken a number of steps to improve the way it does business as part of its commitment to continuous improvement including:

  • Improved Housing – The Company has invested thousands of dollars to upgrade its worker housing units, centralized shower/restroom facilities and worker housing grounds.
  • Supervisor Training – The Company trained every supervisor and farm manager to ensure they can communicate effectively and manage responsibly.
  • Enhanced Food Security – The Company has improved security throughout all its properties to protect the safety of its food and keep its employees safe and secure.

By far, the biggest news to many in the community is Sakuma's decision to not participate in the H-2A program in 2014.  Given the compressed time period to identify and hire employees, Sakuma Brothers will work with various Skagit County community groups to help recruit local workers to apply for employment to pick berries.   The minimum wage for all berry pickers will be $11.87 per hour for those who do not exceed this per hour guarantee through piece rate calculations, as workers will be paid the higher of the two calculations.  The $11.87 minimum wage is the same wage set by the federal government for Washington State for all H-2A foreign and domestic workers in corresponding employment.  It is also higher than the Washington State Minimum Wage, currently at $9.32

"Our family hopes the community appreciates the efforts we have made to respond to our critics.  It is the right approach for local farm workers, the community and one that will enable our family to remain in business," said Sakuma. He added, "The reality is that farmers, farm workers and our community must come together and focus our energies where they are needed most and work together to secure the passage of real comprehensive immigration reform by our leaders in Washington, D.C."

The Sakuma family business is committed to working with local farm worker support groups to engage the Washington State Congressional Delegation to seek a solution for a legal and stable workforce.

SOURCE Sakuma Brothers Farms