Oregon farmers are already wary of how they will cope when farmworkers become eligible for overtime on Jan. 1. They won’t be comforted by the experience of Washington growers, who have already had a season under rules that require overtime pay.
The Washington Legislature passed a bill that eliminated the overtime exemption for farmworkers and set a schedule that gradually reduces the number of hours farmworkers can work before qualifying for time-and-a-half.
This year, Washington farmworkers qualified for overtime after 55 hours. On Jan. 1, that limit will drop to 48 hours and on Jan. 1, 2024, the limit will be 40 hours.
The Oregon Legislature passed a similar bill, which on Jan. 1 will require overtime after 55 hours. The exemption will not be completely eliminated in Oregon until 2027.
Many of the high-value crops grown in Washington and Oregon also require a lot of labor, particularly during harvest.
Critics of the measures warned that eliminating the overtime exemption would lead to producers cutting hours, and thereby reducing the amount of food produced.
And that’s exactly what’s happened, according to an informal survey taken by the Washington Farm Bureau in November.
“It impacted our operation significantly as well as directly impacting our workers’ income,” a farmer wrote. “What is going to happen in two years when we get to the 40-hour work week?”
One orchardist reported that most workers lost 20 hours a week and that the farm lost 30% of its crop.
Another orchardist reported cutting workers back by 10 to 15 hours a week. “This law is taking hours of pay out of the pocket of good, honest working people and their families,” the grower wrote.
A grower of apples, cherries, grapes, blueberries and hops reported hiring more foreign workers to minimize overtime and restricting year-round employees to 32 hours in the winter.
“With the upcoming minimum wage increase and reduction of hours to qualify for overtime, I think many farmers, particularly small farms, will need to go out of business,” the farmer wrote.
Worker advocates argue that the exemption was the product of racism and pandering to the needs of special interests. Farmers of every scale note that farm work is distinct from factory production. The nature of most farm work makes it difficult to schedule in eight-hour days and 40-hour work weeks.
Farmworkers should be paid as much as business conditions allow, but an overtime mandate won’t change the basic economics of agriculture.
Farmers are still price takers, not price makers, who cannot simply pass along higher labor costs to consumers the way retailers and manufacturers, though limited by the impacts of competition, do.
Farmers will buy as much labor as they can afford, invest in automation, or switch to crops that are less labor intensive. With any of those options, those suffering most will be the farmworkers who depend on money earned during the most intensive periods to carry them through the winter.
It’s already happening in Washington. Oregon is next.
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