SALEM — Oregon lawmakers during the upcoming session will again consider whether employers must pay overtime wages to farmworkers.
Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat from Lake Oswego, plans to reintroduce legislation that would gradually phase in overtime pay for Oregon’s estimated 174,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers. House Bill 2358, sponsored by Salinas in the 2021 Legislature, died in committee.
Supporters of the measure rallied Nov. 16 outside the Capitol, part of a political campaign led by the labor union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN.
“For us, this is more than just pay,” said Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN. “This is about fairness. It’s about equity. It’s about fair wages. It’s about better conditions at work, and it’s about our quality of life.”
While a new bill is still being developed, Lopez said a work group is picking up negotiations where they left off last session with HB 2358.
The bill would have phased out the agricultural overtime exemption over three years, setting the overtime threshold for farmworkers at 55 hours in 2022, 48 hours in 2023 and 40 hours in 2024. Farmworkers would have been paid time-and-a-half for hours above those limits.
HB 2358 mirrors a policy that passed in Washington state and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in April.
Farmers overwhelmingly opposed the bill, arguing it would harm workers rather than help them since the increased labor costs could mean shorter schedules or potentially being replaced by automation.
Speaking to a gathering of about 50 people on the Capitol Mall, Lopez said farmworkers’ pay and benefits should be reflective of their status as essential employees who have worked through a global pandemic, wildfires and blistering summer heat wave to harvest this year’s crops.
“This is one of the most important sectors in Oregon’s economy, and we are essential to feeding Oregon,” Lopez said. “Unfortunately, we are seeing that employers are taking advantage of the low cost of labor, making us exploitable, and these laws help them continue to do that.”
At the same time as the rally, members of the Oregon Senate Labor and Business Committee discussed farmworker overtime as part of a virtual hearing for Legislative Days.
Jenny Dresler, a lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said agriculture is not like other high-production industries. Farmers are price-takers, meaning they cannot pass along higher labor costs to the consumer.
Despite its good intentions, Dresler said the bill could backfire on workers as farmers control their costs to stay in business. That might include reducing hours, switching to automation, growing less labor-intensive crops or moving operations outside Oregon.
“For those that close their operations in Oregon or mechanize, there will be lost jobs,” Dresler said.
Dresler described HB 2358 as a blunt instrument, compared to farmworker overtime policies in other states like Colorado, which divides agricultural employers into three different buckets — “small,” “highly seasonal” and “other” farms — each with their own overtime thresholds to meet their industry’s needs.
”(Oregon’s) policy, as proposed, doesn’t include that nuance,” Dresler said. “We’re going to be very disappointed if the policy conversation doesn’t shift.”
The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act guarantees minimum wages and overtime pay for most workers. However, farmworkers were excluded.
Salinas, who spoke at the PCUN rally, said the exclusion was made to secure votes from Southern states and to perpetuate a labor system rooted in slavery and racism.
”Excluding farmworkers from overtime pay was wrong in 1938, and it is still wrong today,” said Salinas, whose father was a Mexican immigrant and child farmworker. “We are responsible for how we want to move forward. It is incumbent on us, on this Legislature, to right the historic wrong.”
Salinas was joined by Sen. Kathleen Taylor, a fellow Portland-area Democrat and chair of the Senate Labor and Business Committee. She said they will work together to pass farmworker overtime in both chambers.
”I’ve always supported this piece of legislation,” Taylor said. “I’ve always believed that we needed this.”
Manuel Nieves, a farmworker for more than 30 years who lives in Woodburn, Ore., said the push for farmworker overtime is about demanding respect and dignity for his colleagues.
Nieves said every day he wakes up at 3 a.m. to get ready for work. By the time he gets home, he has only enough time to shower, eat dinner and prepare for the next day. He said he barely has any time to spend with his family.
“I know that my job is essential to get food on people’s tables and in the stores,” Nieves said in Spanish. “We want to improve the conditions for farmworkers, and we hope that the people upstairs hear us.”