OLYMPIA — The Senate labor committee Monday passed a bill calling on every farm employer in Washington to go back three years and pay workers time-and-a-half for overtime.
Democrats on the committee amended Senate Bill 5172, which originally would have barred the state Supreme Court’s Nov. 5 ruling on overtime from being applied retroactively.
The bill now would do the “exact opposite” of what he intended, the legislation’s prime sponsor, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said. “First time I’ve seen that happen,” he said.
The committee’s vote, however, was not a total loss for agricultural employers. If not approved by the committee Monday, the bill would have died, falling victim to a legislative deadline.
Farms would have been left to defend against back-pay lawsuits without any intervention by lawmakers.
The committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said talks on a final bill will continue.
“This is not an easy issue,” she said. “I believe it is a work in progress and has much work ahead of us. ... But it’s an important issue we should keep alive.”
Farm groups took consolation in Keiser’s remark.
“It sent a pretty strong signal that she’s still open to negotiate and shape the bill,” said Dan Wood, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.
“The bill passed by the committee will make things far worse than they are now, for all of agriculture,” he said. “You would see a whole bunch of farms shut down and farmworkers lose their jobs.”
The court’s 5-4 ruling declared that exempting dairies from the state’s overtime law was unconstitutional.
The court’s majority did not rule on whether workers could sue for back pay. The four dissenting justices said it would be unfair to allow back-pay lawsuits. Nevertheless, some 30 such lawsuits have been filed in a half dozen counties.
The bill that passed the labor committee confirms that the court’s ruling should be applied retroactively and to all farms, not just dairies.
Farms would have to find workers and pay them back overtime, plus 12% per year interest.
If farms can’t find a worker, the back wages would have to be paid to Labor and Industries, which would set up a committee to pay out back wages. Farms that don’t pay upfront could be sued.
“There are a lot of serious problems with the substitute (bill) passed out of the committee,” Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said.
“However, chair Keiser did acknowledge that this is an incomplete proposal and a work in progress,” he said.
The committee’s five Democrats voted for the reworked bill. King took a neutral stance, banking on future negotiations.
“I look forward to working with all of you to try to find reasonable, sensible and fair solutions,” he said.
The committee’s three other Republicans voted “no.”
“I absolutely will be voting ‘no,’” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Schoesler said that less than a year ago dairy farmers were dumping milk because of COVID problems. “Now we’re kicking these people while they’re down,” he said.
The dairy federation estimates that dairies would have to pay out $90 million to $120 million if the overtime decision were applied to a three-year period that ended when the Supreme Court ruled.
Wood said Monday the federation has roughly calculated that retroactively applying the decision to all agricultural employees would cost $2 billion.
The court’s ruling overturned a law passed by lawmakers in 1959. The bill endorsed by the Senate labor committee goes farther than any court has in punishing agricultural employers for following that law, Wood said.
If lawmakers don’t provide relieve, the dairy federation likely would pursue a federal lawsuit, he said.