OLYMPIA — Several Washington farmers testified on Jan. 28 they could be bankrupted by lawsuits seeking back wages for workers after the state Supreme Court granted farmworkers overtime pay.
Farmers said they can adjust and pay overtime in the future, but they may not survive if the new law applies retroactively.
Fransisca Vander Meulen said her family’s dairies in Central Washington face three lawsuits. The dairies employ more than 300 workers, she said.
“In our business alone, it may cost us upwards of $10 million if we have to pay retroactive wages,” Vander Meulen told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
“If our family farm can’t survive, I know other family farms will also be wiped out,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
More than 500 people signed in to support Senate Bill 5172, which would prohibit the court’s 5-4 decision in November from being applied to the past.
More than 500 people signed in to oppose the bill.
Only a fraction of the people who wanted to testify could on Thursday, though the video hearing gave farmers from throughout the state the chance to tell lawmakers that the back-pay suits are an existential threat.
Tonasket orchardist Flor de Maria Maldonado said her family’s tree fruit farm will be jeopardized if the bill fails. Without SB 5172, more farms will be sold to large companies and investors, she said.
“Contrary to popular belief, farmers don’t have a large stack of funds that would cover these potential costs,” she said. “Family owned orchards, specifically those that are owned by minority or disadvantaged farmers, will become a thing of the past.”
The Supreme Court declared that a 1959 law that exempted farmers from paying workers time-and-a-half for hours worked over 40 in a week was unconstitutional.
The state law mirrored federal law and had never been challenged in court before or changed by the Legislature.
The ruling didn’t address whether farmworkers could claim back pay. State law presumes workers can go back three years to collect wages wrongly withheld. Some 25 lawsuits have been filed so far, according to the Washington State Dairy Federation.
The four dissenting Supreme Court justices said that in this case it would be unjust to make farmers pay.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Charles Johnson said farmers should not be punished for following the law and laid out the legal reasoning in detail. SB 5172 adopts the reasoning nearly verbatim.
The United Farm Workers, Washington State Labor Council, Columbia Legal Services and Washington Employment Lawyers Association opposed the bill. A common argument was that back pay claims should be left up to courts.
Ramon Torres, president of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, said three years back pay pales in comparison to the 60 years farmworkers were denied overtime.
“We are against this bill because more than anything it deprives us of our dignity,” he said through a translator.
Two people who testified identified themselves as farmworkers. Both supported SB 5172.
Miguel Navarrete said his job at a Pasco dairy paid his way through college.
“I depend on this job to support myself and cover mortgage payments and other expenses. Now all of that is being put at risk,” he said. “When you hurt the employer, the employee also gets hurt.”