The Washington Supreme Court will hear arguments Oct. 24 in Olympia on whether farmworkers must be paid a premium for overtime.
Washington lawmakers in 1959 exempted farmworkers from time-and-a-half pay for hours over 40 in a week or eight in a day. The state modeled the law after the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Attorneys representing former milkers at a Yakima County dairy argue denying farmworkers overtime pay violates the state constitution and perpetuates racism.
They contend Southern legislators put the agriculture exemption in the federal act to oppress black farmworkers.
The Washington Farm Bureau and the Washington State Dairy Federation filed a joint brief in July disputing the claim. The state’s farm labor workforce was 85% white in 1959, according to their brief.
“The underlying rationale for the agricultural worker exemption is uniquely related to the nature of the agricultural industry,” the groups argue. “It will cost the farm industry tens or hundreds of million of dollars to pay overtime premiums to farmworkers.”
According to a summary of the case written by the high court’s staff, the case raises a constitutional issue.
The state constitution prohibits laws that grant privileges to some citizens. The plaintiffs argue withholding overtime pay from farmworkers is a violation.
The defendants dispute the workers’ interpretation of the constitution. They argue lawmakers had a reason to exempt agriculture from the state’s wage law.
“While it may be that the people of Washington should reconsider its overtime statute, any such economic policy change should be made legislatively, not judicially,” attorneys for DeRuyter Brothers Dairy wrote in a brief filed in July.
The case is Jose Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy.
The Supreme Court has previously ruled that piece-rate farmworkers must be paid separately for rest breaks and for job-related activities such as meetings and traveling to fields.