PUBLISHED ON Monday, July 21, 2008 AT 11:34PM

Zirkle Fruit reaches labor settlement
Selah company agrees to pay $102,000 to former guest workers
by Leah Beth Ward
Yakima Herald-Republic

Approximately 600 foreign guest workers employed by Zirkle Fruit in 2007 will be entitled to $170 each under the terms of a settlement announced Monday. The total settlement is $102,000.

Zirkle fired nine Mexican farm workers last year for allegedly failing to meet productivity requirements. The men had been brought to the U.S. on H-2A visas as part of a federal program that allows American farmers to hire foreign workers when there's a local shortage.

The farm workers sued the Selah-based fruit company in federal court in January, alleging that Zirkle failed to adequately disclose production standards in the labor contract, which is approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The workers' claim was based on federal minimum wage law and recent court rulings that found that if net wages in the first week of work fall below the federal wage, employers must make up the difference.

Attorneys for both sides praised the settlement in a news release Monday. A federal judge in Yakima must approve the terms.

The 600 workers Zirkle hired were part of the H-2A program, which has been somewhat controversial.

Some employers have worried about possible tensions between the two groups of workers: the illegal immigrants who have traditionally worked the harvest and foreign workers who are brought in with government approval and may get preference in the hiring process.

Increasing use of the guest worker program is a reflection of the demand for a stable source of farm labor and employer concerns about the immigration status of local workers. Employers in the past have worried about immigration raids and liability if they hire undocumented workers -- unwittingly or not.

Farm worker rights groups, meanwhile, have been suspicious of H-2A
because workers are beholden to one employer for the entire contract period -- up to 10 months -- and can't shop for the highest wages.

Workers can be black-listed if they complain about working conditions and unscrupulous employers can manipulate the contract to drive down their costs.

Under the H-2A program, employers this year must pay at least $9.94 an hour compared with the state minimum wage of $8.07. But all workers earn more under a piece rate, which rewards them for faster picking. If the piece rate, or prevailing wage, is higher than $9.94, employers have to pay the higher rate.