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Wage hike may end Washington state firm’s blueberry harvest

August 21, 2019

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) — A mandated wage increase for Washington state blueberry pickers may cause one fruit company to end its harvest early, a report said.

Zirkle Fruit Company of Selah said its season may be ended prematurely by a 50% wage increase ordered by the U.S. Department of Labor, The Capital Press reported Tuesday.

Zirkle Fruit is awaiting the outcome of an Aug. 29 hearing, during which a federal judge will decide whether to uphold the increase, officials said.

The company southeast of Seattle said it will pay the increase for workers back to July 24 before deciding whether to complete the harvest, which normally runs from late June to the end of September.

A lawsuit filed by the company Aug. 7 said the “unprecedented wage jump” would cause a “calamitous” increase in labor costs.

Washington and Oregon are among the nation’s largest blueberry producers. Washington harvested 136 million pounds (62 million kilograms) in 2018 valued at $139 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Zirkle Fruit anticipated harvesting 14.5 million pounds (6.6 million kilograms) this harvest season, which its lawsuit said is more than 10% of the state blueberry crop.

The company estimated that as of July 22 it had 5 million pounds (2.3 million kilograms) left to pick. The wage increase was expected to push its costs from $2.5 million to $3.75 million, the lawsuit said.

“This increase will wipe out virtually any and all anticipated profit,” the lawsuit said.

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Information from: Capital Press, http://www.capitalpress.com/washington

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