Friday, May 7, 2021
May 7, 2021

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In Our View: Overtime for agricultural workers overdue

The Columbian
Published:

Washington lawmakers this year took a step toward correcting a long-standing injustice. Farm workers may soon be eligible for overtime pay that long has eluded them – a right afforded employees in other industries.

Senate Bill 5172 passed both chambers by wide margins and has been sent to Gov. Jay Inslee. The fact that all Southwest Washington lawmakers supported the legislation (Republican Rep. Larry Hoff introduced a companion bill in the House) reflects the urgency of the legislation.

The law will make agriculture employees eligible for overtime pay after working a 40-hour week and goes into full effect in 2024. Workers will be eligible for overtime pay after 55 hours starting next year and after 48 hours in 2023.

The issue came to the forefront when farm workers in Yakima County sued their employer, claiming they were not receiving overtime pay, paid breaks or meal times. According to the Yakima Herald-Republic: “The overtime exemption at the state level dates back to the minimum wage law passed in 1959. That law requires workers to earn overtime pay for any time worked above 40 hours each week, but provided exemptions for several industries, including agriculture.”

The lawsuit argued that exemption is unconstitutional. Last year, the state Supreme Court agreed, setting the stage for this year’s legislation.

Federal law also exempts agriculture workers from overtime regulations, and Washington is believed to be the first state to approve full overtime accessibility. “Agricultural employee” is defined as anyone who works in the harvesting, packaging or transportation of agricultural commodities. The law also covers commercial food processing workers, plus those who harvest and process oysters.

Some agriculture employers are dismayed by the action, saying that overtime pay will increase costs and that those costs will be passed along to consumers.

It is a specious argument. Consumers should not expect low prices at the expense of the people who bring the products to market; paying a fair wage for a week’s work and giving agriculture workers the same rights as employees in other industries is a cost of doing business.

Farm work – disproportionately performed by people of color – is exhausting. Employees don’t have the luxury of heading to the nearest coffee shop during a break, nor do they have the luxury of an air-conditioned office. While the seasonal nature of the industry demands long work days during certain times of year, it is reasonable to expect the workers to be equitably paid for that work.

Washington is increasingly recognizing that equitable pay includes overtime pay. In 2019, the state Department of Labor & Industries began phasing in rules to make more workers eligible for overtime when they exceed 40 hours in a given week. The salary threshold for exempt employees was raised, expanding the number of nonexempt employees. Addressing the misguided exception for farm workers is another step toward improving fairness in the marketplace.

While free-market advocates will argue that wages should be decided between employers and employees, the fact is that the American capitalist system decided long ago that working more than 40 hours a week warrants increased wages. If those parameters apply to other industries, they should apply to agriculture, as well.

The new law improves equity and working conditions throughout our state, and that is an invaluable benefit.

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