The Washington Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments regarding farmworker overtime wages. If the Court rules that farm workers should receive overtime pay, it could mean fewer jobs and more insecurity for the workers who are supposed to “benefit” from the lawsuit.

The cyclical nature of agriculture makes overtime exemptions a critical component of farm labor in Washington state and a white-collar work schedule cannot meet those needs.

In our state, most of the 300 commodities grown are seasonal, and the labor needs vary a great deal. For example, spring planting and late summer to early fall harvests throughout most of Eastern Washington require long hours in the fields. To offset the long hours of certain parts of the growing season, many employers will shorten workdays when there is an opportunity to do so.

The winter months are usually slow with most farmers taking time off to rest from the long days of harvest, attend trade shows or other educational opportunities, and catch up with family and friends who may have been neglected during the hectic growing season.

The overtime exemption for farm employees gives farmers a way to effectively run their businesses without pricing them out of the employment market. The exemption also gives farm employers the ability to exercise discretion in how they compensate their employees for their hard work.

Some farmers are switching to a salaried wage structure to retain their current employees whether they are working 60 hours a week or 15 hours a week. By providing employees with a steady rate of pay, regardless of hours, farm employers are able to combat seasonal rates of attrition and retain a workforce with institutional knowledge of that particular farm.

There are anecdotal examples of farms moving to a salaried pay structure for their employees throughout the state in an effort to bring wage stability to their employees. And there is a precedent for making a move in that direction for all farms: white-collar jobs.

In the white-collar workforce, particularly among highly skilled laborers, it is not uncommon for salaries to be put in place to minimize payment of overtime pay. No one balks at a computer programmer working a variable schedule of 50 hours one week at 10 the next while being paid the same amount regardless of hours.

Opponents of salary for farm laborers argue it is another means by which to take advantage of employees, rather than a way to provide income stability. The concern is that the Court may rule that salaried workers must still receive overtime, eliminating salaries as a way to deal with fluctuating schedules.

If overtime exemptions and salaries are both unavailable to farmers, and their only recourse is to pay their employees hourly, there is the potential for waves of seasonal layoffs, which adds difficulty to an already complicated labor market. Finding continual, reliable labor is one of the top concerns for farmers in Washington state and across the country. Farmers who are able to find good employees want to retain those employees.

The workload does not always call for having a full staff, leading to layoffs. If an employee qualifies for unemployment benefits through the winter, their compensation is not likely to meet the rate of pay they collected during the working months of the year.

For a farm employee being paid $15/hour, working an average of 72 hours a week during peak times of year and 40 hours a week during the next highest work period, would receive an unemployment benefit of approximately $388 a week, or $1,552 a month.

However, if that same employee is retained at $15/hour on a salaried basis, they can earn a steady $2,400/month regardless of how many hours are worked.

These cases have not been heard but there is a risk in putting agriculture overtime exemptions on the chopping block and employees would assume much of the risk.

Farmers will be forced to make choices about staffing needs based upon potentially high overtime costs, thus likely hiring fewer employees overall. Qualified, hard-working employees will suffer the most because, despite the promises, their efforts will not be rewarded by overtime pay.

If a ruling were to be handed down that ends overtime exemptions in agriculture, there will be no winners.

Pam Lewison is the agriculture research director for the Washington Policy Center. You can find more of her work and information about the Washington Policy Center at washingtonpolicy.org.

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