Labor bill

The Washington state Senate deleted Feb. 18 from a labor bill provisions that farm groups said would have exposed their members to lawsuits.

OLYMPIA — The Washington Senate shortened and then passed what remained of a labor bill Tuesday that was vehemently opposed by farm groups.

Senate Bill 6261 was stripped of sections that would have expanded the ways farmers could be found guilty of illegally retaliating against disgruntled employees.

All that remains is a requirement that nonprofit organizations that help growers get foreign workers have a farm labor contractor’s license, a provision aimed at WAFLA, formerly known as the Washington Farm Labor Association.

Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle, said the bill will close a “weird loophole.” WAFLA’s executive director, Dan Fazio, said the bill just means more paperwork.

“It’s a total nothing burger,” he said. “All it does is require us to get a signature on a piece of paper from workers who just want jobs and who already get too many pieces of paper.”

The bill, backed by the nonprofit law firm Columbia Legal Services and sponsored by nine Senate Democrats, began as a broadening of the state law that protects farmworkers from being fired for asserting their rights.

Under the original bill, farmers would have been presumed guilty if they dismissed, demoted, didn’t promote, didn’t rehire or changed the hours, pay or any terms of employment of any worker who made a complaint. Farmers could have escaped penalty by proving their innocence.

Supporters said the bill was necessary to protect workers. Farm groups argued the bill was antithetical to American principles of justice and would have made producers easy prey for lawsuits. A Senate committee removed the presumption of guilt. All other sections related to the retaliation law were stricken Tuesday by a floor amendment. The truncated bill then passed the Democratic-controlled Senate on a mostly party-line vote, 32-16.

“The nice thing was legislators heard from farmers and responded,” Washington State Dairy Federation lobbyist Scott Dilley said. “Every farmer who employs someone was a target of this bill.”

Columbia Legal Services attorney Andrea Schmitt said the organization will continue pushing for reforms so that workers aren’t afraid to assert their rights. “We’re not done working on this issue.”

Washington Growers League Executive Director Mike Gempler said the bill, as introduced, would have made hiring farmworkers a “very risky proposition.”

The Legislature last year set up an advisory group that includes farm and labor representatives to discuss issues such as the growing number of seasonal foreign farmworkers and the effect on U.S. workers. A report to lawmakers is due in October.

SB 6261 jumped ahead of that process, said Gempler, who’s on the advisory board. “It just assumed retaliation happens all the time, and it was unjustified and very unfair.”

Schmitt said farmworkers are “extraordinarily vulnerable to retaliation.”

“We don’t need anybody to tell us it’s a problem,” she said.

The state licenses farm labor contractors to make sure workers are paid and that their rights are protected. Columbia Legal Services maintains foreign farmworkers are particularly susceptible to abuse. WAFLA is involved in bringing most of those farmworkers to Washington.

Fazio restated Tuesday that it’s “no skin off my nose” for WAFLA to fall under the farm labor contractors law, but he said lawmakers concerned about farmworkers should pay more attention to making sure labor suppliers are properly paying them.

“If you’re going to go to the trouble of opening up a statute, let’s correct the problem. The problem is the underground economy,” Fazio said.

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