OLYMPIA — A House Republican said Thursday he was optimistic that ongoing talks will yield an overtime bill that recognizes the seasonal natural of agriculture.

Vancouver Rep. Larry Hoff and two other Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee voted with Democrats to keep alive legislation that will phase in time-and-half after 40 hours for all farmworkers by 2024.

Hoff withdrew an amendment that would raise the threshold to 50 hours for 12 weeks chosen by the farmer. The amendment was unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled committee anyway.

"Because I'm excited about the bipartisan effort we're looking forward to, I'm going to vote 'yes' on this bill," said Hoff, the top-ranking Republican on the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.

"I'm very optimistic about the path forward for this bill," he said.

By passing Senate Bill 5172, the appropriations committee continued the struggle to flesh out the state Supreme Court's 5-4 decision that immediately granted dairy workers overtime pay.

The ruling didn't explicitly apply to other farmworkers, nor did it address whether workers are entitled to back pay. A concurring opinion, signed by three justices, however, was hostile to agricultural employers in general and said the decision should be applied retroactively.

As passed by the Senate, all farmworkers would receive time-and-a-half after 55 hours in 2022, 48 hours in 2023 and 40 hours in 2024. The bill also shields farms from back-pay lawsuits, though farm groups say the bill needs to also preclude the state from pursing back-wage claims.

If the Legislature doesn't pass a bill this session, further court rulings may shape the overtime law. Hoff said the stakes are high. Legislators vote on many bills and never hear about them again, he said.

"This one is different. This one affects every one of our farmers in the state of Washington," he said.

Farm groups oppose the bill as it stands it because it lacks the seasonal exemption and doesn't fully protect farmers from back-pay lawsuits. Farmworkers have testified they fear their incomes will fall if growers find it more profitable to leave fruit unpicked than pay overtime. 

Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Breanne Elsey said Friday the current bill is more dangerous than doing nothing.

"We still maintain that the bill in its current form is not worth moving forward," she said. "Fingers crossed, we will come out with something that agriculture can support."

Organized labor, an important interest group for majority Democrats, supports the bill as it is and opposes the seasonal exemption. In a short time, Washington and California would be the only states that grant all farmworkers time-and-a-half after 40 hours.

Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, said lawmakers must find a policy that will pay workers fairly and keep farms profitable. 

"We are in a dilemma here where we need to address the results of that Supreme Court decision," he said. "I encourage us to vote for this bill (in committee), move it out to the floor and let the stakeholders who are engaged in this to continue their discussions."

Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said Friday he too was optimistic the bill will change. "The bi-partisan comments in the House Appropriations Committee reinforced that this effort is ongoing and is making progress," he said.

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