When ESSB 5172, a bill addressing retroactive pay in agriculture, passed out of the Senate in early March, Senate Democrats who hijacked the bill with amendments celebrated its passage as a supposed victory for farmworkers throughout our state.

They also acknowledged the bill still needed work. Yet, since moving to the House, the legislators who pledged to make the bill better have disappeared, the embodiment of all the negative clichés you hear about dishonest politicians and sneaky lawyers.

The current version of ESSB 5172 would create a phased-in schedule for payment of overtime pay to all farmworkers in Washington state beginning with time-and-a-half being paid for any hours worked after 55 hours in 2022; then 48 hours in 2023; and then 40 hours in 2024. The bill also offers protection from private lawsuits filed on or after Nov. 4, 2020, for retroactive pay with the exception of the people involved in the Martinez-Cuevas vs. the DeRuyter Brothers Dairy case, which was recently settled out of court. The bill does not protect agricultural employers from lawsuits brought by state enforcement agencies seeking to collect retroactive backpay.

The most egregious problem with lawmakers being unwilling to improve the bill is that it puts the people they are purportedly supporting in the most jeopardy: farmworkers. If lawmakers really care about the farmworkers they say they support, they would step up and fix the bill to keep farmworkers employed.

Farmworkers, and their employers, have testified in several hearings that they don’t want to risk having their hours capped at 40 hours a week by a forced time-and-a-half pay scale. Farmers and ranchers have begged for protection from retroactive pay lawsuits from every quarter, not just private suits, to ensure their farms and ranches continue to function, thus continue to provide for the livelihoods of the people who work for them. Agricultural advocates have requested seasonal flexibility be built into the bill to acknowledge that our state is rightly famous for a number of time-sensitive crops like apples, hops, sweet cherries, and more that, when ripe, need nearly round-the-clock harvest schedules for picking.

Yet, all the logic and science, all the heartfelt requests from the hardworking farmworkers of their state, have fallen on deaf ears and hard hearts in legislative hearings.

Farmworkers in Washington state are the highest paid in the nation, even without time-and-a-half rules being applied to their wages. Our state’s agricultural community is the third-largest economic driver in this state, right behind computer technology and aerospace. Without the local, affordable food Washington state’s farmworkers and their employers provide, our food chain would significantly increase its effect on the environment through shipping, deforestation, and other carbon outputs.

And, still, Washington’s Democratic lawmakers cannot see past the end of their noses to spite their faces in the fight to negotiate a mutually beneficial conclusion for ESSB 5172.

Good policy is predicated on all parties effected being mutually satisfied. In its current iteration, ESSB 5172 satisfies no one.

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Pam Lewison is director of the Initiative on Agriculture at the Washington Policy Center.

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