Judge: stopping farmworker family housing was discrimination

by: Graham Johnson Updated:

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MOUNT VERNON, Wash. - A judge in Mount Vernon ruled Thursday against a berry farm that suddenly stopped offering housing for the families of its pickers, saying it was discriminating against farmworkers with spouses and children.

For generations in the Skagit Valley berry pickers have housed their families rent-free on the farms where they work during harvest.

This spring one of the state's largest berry suppliers, Sakuma Brothers Farms, changed its policy, saying it would only house employees themselves, not their children and spouses.

That left Federico Lopez wondering what to do.

"They told us there would be no cabins for us," Lopez said.

Sakuma Brothers has been under fire from farmworkers and their advocates, who organized a strike last year.

The farm recently paid an $850,000 settlement over pay practices and rest breaks.

It backed off hiring foreign guest workers and committed to higher wages.

It also cut the family housing benefit - something Judge Susan Cook said was retaliation for the labor uprising.

"We need the farmworkers, why would (they) retaliate against the farmworkers," asked farm owner Steve Sakuma after the ruling.

Farm supporters rallied outside the courthouse, worried a ruling that required family housing will set a precedent for agriculture across the state.

"No other employer has to provide housing to their workers," said rally organizer Kristen Hinton.

The judge said the government cannot require an employer to provide housing, but because Sakuma Farms did it voluntarily, it put itself in the position of being governed by discrimination laws