Measure allowing overtime for Washington farmworkers moves forward

Washington Supreme Court: Farmworkers To Get Overtime Pay

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Agricultural workers in Washington state would become eligible for overtime pay under a bill moving through the Legislature in Olympia.

Somewhat surprisingly, the bill enjoys bipartisan support and even has the backing of farm employers who say it will bring a level of certainty to their labor costs. Farmworkers have been exempted from overtime pay since 1938, although some states such as California and New York have extended those protections in recent years.

“This bill corrects a historic injustice,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines. “Most workers in America can take the 40-hour workweek for granted, but for decades, agricultural workers have not been eligible for overtime pay.”

Senate Bill 5172, sponsored by Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, passed Tuesday the Senate on a 37-12 vote and was sent to the House.

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That followed a compromise sought by the agriculture industry that added a phase-in period for overtime pay. Under Keiser’s amendment, Washington would establish a three-year phase-in period of the new requirement. Beginning in January 2022, overtime would be due after 55 hours of work in a week; in January 2023, after 48 hours; and in January 2024, after 40 hours.

“This transitional approach improves the safety of an essential and at-risk workforce, increases the public welfare of low-income individuals by removing a historical barrier to their earning potential, and maintains the food security and economic security provided by a stable agricultural sector,” Keiser said.

The Senate bill grew out of a landmark November decision by the state Supreme Court that granted overtime protections for dairy workers. Jon DeVaney of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association in Yakima said agricultural employers were moved to support the bill because of a fear of losing future litigation on the issue, and the possibility they might then be required to make huge retroactive overtime payments.

“We did not want a sudden (court) decision in the middle of harvest season,” DeVaney said.

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He acknowledged there was “not a lot of excitement” in support of the bill, but also a lack of opposition.

“The court put this on the table,” he said of the dairy decision. “There was no all-out conflict that we sometimes see.”

DeVaney noted one lawmaker said he was holding his nose to vote for the bill. Edgar Franks, political director of the farm worker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, called the bill a victory.

While Washington is well known as the national leader in apple production, some 300 crops are harvested on more than 35,000 farms across the state. The state ranks in the top 10 nationally in the size of the farm labor force. The bill has until April 11 to be approved by the House to be eligible to become law this year.

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