Dairy workers

Washington legislators have modified a bill to allow farmworkers to sue for three years of back pay.

A bill originally designed to protect Washington farmers from having to pay retroactive overtime pay in the wake of a recent state supreme court decision has been changed in committee to require just the opposite.

If passed as it stands, the bill would put Washington farms and ranches on the hook for $2 billion in back wages — all for following the law understood for more than 60 years.

That would be ruinous to even the largest farming operations.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed by Congress in 1938, established a federal minimum wage and provided for overtime pay for work over 40 hours. The act provided a host of job classifications, including farmworkers, that are exempt from the overtime rule.

Washington lawmakers in 1959 adopted a similar provision into state law.

In a case filed by two former milkers from Yakima County, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the exemption Nov. 5 in a 5-4 decision. Left unclear by the ruling was whether it applied just to dairy farms or all farmworkers, or whether those impacted could collect three years in back wages as made possible under a separate state law.

Trial lawyers with their plaintiff farmworkers waited in the wings and in short order several suits were filed demanding back pay.

Ag interests sought relief from the Legislature.

Senate Bill 5172 originally barred farmworkers from applying the ruling retroactively. But, Democrats on the Senate labor committee amended and passed the bill, confirming that the court’s ruling should be applied retroactively and to all farms, not just dairies.

Under the current bill, farms would have to find the workers and pay them back overtime, plus 12% per year interest.

If farms can’t find a worker, the back wages would have to be paid to Labor and Industries, which would set up a committee to pay out back wages. Farms that don’t pay upfront could be sued.

Whether Democrats on the committee were serious, or jockeying for a better negotiating position as the bill progresses, we don’t know.

As we said three weeks ago, the court’s original ruling was wrongheaded, but allowing newly minted victims to retroactively collect overtime would be disastrous to farming operations that were following the law as written by the Legislature and enforced by the state.

We can only hope that commonsense will prevail and SB 5172 will be returned to its original purpose — a tall order, given who we’re talking about.

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