OLYMPIA — The Washington Senate approved legislation Tuesday to phase in overtime pay for farmworkers and shield dairies and other farms from lawsuits seeking to apply a state Supreme Court ruling retroactively.

Senate Bill 5172 passed, 37-12, and now goes to the House. Under the bill, all dairy workers would immediately receive time-and-a-half pay for hours worked over 40 in a week.

Phased-in overtime pay for other agricultural employees would begin Jan. 1, 2022, with workers becoming eligible for overtime after 55 hours in one week.

The overtime standard threshold would fall to 48 hours on Jan. 1, 2023, and to 40 hours on Jan. 1, 2024.

The bill responds to a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in November granting overtime pay to dairy workers. The ruling has led to some 30 lawsuits against farms seeking to apply the ruling to the past three years, the limit for back-pay claims.

Dairies have adjusted to the ruling, paying employees overtime, but allowing workers to claim they had been underpaid for the previous three years could bankrupt some producers, the Washington State Dairy Federation warned.

The federation estimates dairies face a total of $90 million to $120 million in back-pay claims.

"If the House passes the bill with the same language as the Senate and governor signs it, that will have been resolved," dairy federation director Dan Wood said.

"It was a strong bipartisan vote to protect farms and farmworkers, and we're very glad to see it," he said.

The bill was amended on the floor to exclude the DeRuyter Brothers Dairy from being protected from a back-pay lawsuit. A suit against the Yakima County dairy led to the Supreme Court ruling, and the suit has not been concluded.

The bill also was changed at the last minute to eliminate one-time $5,000 payments to farmworkers. The bill did not say where the money would have come from. 

Opposition to the bill came mostly from Republicans representing agricultural areas. They said failed to take into account the seasonal nature of agriculture or the common practices of paying piece-rate wages and providing housing.

"This bill, I'm very not very happy with," said Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg, a wheat farmer.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, called the bill incomplete, saying was it silent on how overtime will apply to piece rates.

"Piece-rate is far more lucrative than minimum wage or wages that pay on main street — guaranteed," he said.

Senate agriculture committee chairman Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, responded to the criticism.

"Agriculture is going into overtime. The courts have made that clear. This legislation aims to make it easier," he said.

"Agriculture asked for this legislation. They wanted it, and we worked hard to make it as good as possible for them," he said.

Compared to the bill as it passed the Senate Labor Committee, the legislation brought to the full Senate by the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, was far more favorable to agricultural employers. 

"This bill is not perfect, but I think it is worthy of our vote today," said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.

Farmworkers in California, Hawaii, New York and Minnesota are eligible for overtime pay. The law in each state differs. In Hawaii, agricultural employers are exempt from paying overtime during peak harvest seasons.

Washington stood out because the state Supreme Court abruptly threw out a 61-year-old law. Overnight, dairy farmers — and possibly all farmers — faced paying workers time-and-a-half after 40 hours in a week.

The court ruled that denying dairy workers overtime pay was unconstitutional. Although the ruling didn't explicitly apply to other farmworkers, the reasoning did.

The Supreme Court also didn't close the door on back-pay lawsuits, though four dissenting judges said it would be an injustice to punish farmers for following a law that had stood for six decades.

Some senators said they disliked the bill, but that it was better than leaving farms exposed to back-pay lawsuits.

"The threat of three years back overtime makes it impossible to negotiate," said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside. "I have a lot of dairies in my district, so I'm going to have to hold my nose and vote 'yes.' But I sure find it disgusting."

The bill passed by the Senate comments that farmworkers are "among the state's poorest workers" and they face "systemic barriers" to medical care.

Prior to the vote, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said farmers in his northwest Washington district were under "phenomenal attack" on several fronts, including labor and water issues.

"If you want to be able to buy food from farmers in Washington state, you had better start rethinking your policies," he said.

"People in Seattle might think that farming is some old guy sitting on a tractor in a funny hat ... It's not the way farming works," he said.

Save Family Farming and the Washington Farm Bureau mounted a public-relations campaign, drawing attention to the issue and urging voters to contact legislators.

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