Robotic milker

Visitors observe cows entering a robotic milking parlor. A Washington State Supreme Court ruling on overtime pay for farmworkers could lead to more interest in robotics among dairies and other types of farming.

The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that agricultural workers must be paid overtime for working more than 40 hours a week.

In deciding that, the court not only tosses out an exemption the state legislature passed in 1959 but ignores a federal exemption passed by Congress.

The court’s reasoning is based on the fact that some jobs on the farm are dangerous. The justices ruled Washington’s constitution says workers in dangerous jobs must be protected. In this case, that means they should receive overtime pay.

Say what? The State of Washington has a raft of laws and rules on job safety that farmers — and every other employer — are required to follow. The state Department of Labor and Industries offers safety training and certification for farmers. Assuming they are effective and the rules are followed, would that mean a farmer was exempt from paying overtime?

On the flip side, if a farmworker has a job that’s not dangerous — say, sweeping out the barn — does that mean he, or she, is not eligible for overtime pay?

These and other questions were created by the Supreme Court’s decision. A few more:

• Does a bigger paycheck make someone safer on the job? How?

• Do farmers owe employees in dangerous jobs back pay?

• Does the ruling apply only to the dairy workers who sued, or to all farmworkers?

• Considering the fact that there’s a shortage of farmworkers and they could get another job in another industry anytime they wanted, how, exactly, are they “vulnerable” and in need of protection, as the court assumes?

The decision is especially astounding in Washington, which already has one of the highest minimum wages in the nation, $13.50 an hour, and the highest H-2A wage for foreign guestworkers, $15.83 an hour. Often, farmworkers earn wages well over the minimum wages.

Washington’s farmers are left to sort out these and other questions. There are 160,000 farmworkers in the state. If they all are eligible for overtime — long hours are common during certain times of the year — that will change the economics of farming.

“There’s no phase. There’s no grace period,” said Scott Dilley, of the Washington State Dairy Federation. “It’s disheartening and it hurts.”

It’s clear members of the Supreme Court’s majority are not farmers, and they certainly aren’t economists.

At the heart of this ruling is the fact that farmers cannot just raise their price on a gallon of milk or on a bushel of apples to cover the added expense of overtime pay. As price takers, they are subject to the going rate for whatever they produce, not what they need it to be.

Unilaterally and suddenly increasing the cost of their payroll will punch a gaping hole through the budget of every farmer that is determined to be subject to this incredible ruling.

Rather than struggle under the burden of an illogical and unaffordable court ruling, dairy farmers will likely be asking another question:

Where can they get robotic milking machines?

And every other farmer or orchardist who raises labor-intensive crops will be asking similar questions.

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