OLYMPIA — The overtime bill that’s likely headed to Gov. Jay Inslee will protect farms from back-pay lawsuits and give farm groups more time to convince the Legislature that time-and-a-half pay after 40 hours will harm farmworkers more than it helps them.
The bill, Senate Bill 5172, phases in overtime pay for farmworkers. The threshold will be 40 hours a week in 2024. Before then, the thresholds will be 55 hours in 2022 and then 48 hours in 2023.
Farm groups had lobbied for a seasonal exemption, allowing a farm to choose 12 weeks a year to pay overtime after 50 hours a week. Labor groups and majority Democrats rejected the provision.
Farm groups contend that without an allowance for agriculture’s uneven work schedule, farms will struggle and workers will see their hours limited and incomes cut.
“We can say that until we’re blue in the face, but until it comes from workers who are disproportionately affected, the Legislature won’t act,” Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Breanne Elsey said Monday.
The House passed the overtime legislation on a 91-7 vote Friday. The House made no policy changes to the bill passed by the Senate but lumped all provisions into one section.
“We do expect the Senate to concur and for this version to move forward,” Elsey said.
Before Friday’s vote, Vancouver Rep. Larry Hoff, the top-ranking Republican on the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee, said the seasonal exemption may come up during the 2022 session.
Even without it, farm groups and most Republicans accepted the bill as the best deal possible for agricultural employers this year.
The state Supreme Court ruled in November that dairy workers were entitled to overtime. The ruling pointed to further litigation to extend overtime to all farmworkers, with up to three years of back pay.
“We averted both of those potential pitfalls,” Washington Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said. “Those are critically important gains for agricultural employers who were facing a far worse situation.”
Yakima Valley tree fruit grower Jason Matson said he assumed his family’s company would have to pay time-and-a-half after 40 hours this year. The bill gives the company time to plan, he said.
Growers will pay overtime, but they also may cut hours and acres, and automate, Matson said. Companies are working on perfecting robotic apple pickers, he noted. “Boy, they can’t get that solved quickly enough,” he said.
At the 55-hour threshold, an immediate concern will be 12-hour shifts irrigating fields, Matson said. The work may have to be spread out among more workers, leading farmers to hire more foreign workers on H-2A visas, he said.
U.S. workers who have their hours cut may seek to pick up work at other farms, he said. “I imagine there will be a fair amount of moonlighting.
“It’s going to make some of those employees upset,” Matson said. “It’s going to be hard on the middle managers. They’re going to have to deal with it.”
Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling, dairies have been required to pay time-and-a-half after 40 hours a week since November. The bill won’t change that, but it nullifies about three dozen back-pay lawsuits that have been filed against dairies.
The Washington State Dairy Federation issued a statement Monday urging the Senate to quickly send the bill to Inslee.
Washington has the highest state minimum wage and is tied with Oregon for the highest H-2A minimum wage. Washington and California will be the only two states that will pay all farmworkers time-and-a-half after 40 hours.
The Oregon Legislature is debating an overtime bill.