Thousands Tune In for Public Hearing on Bill Proposing Overtime Restriction for Farm Workers
Over 2,000 Washingtonians tuned in to the public hearing on a bill that would increase the amount of hours an agricultural worker would need for overtime pay to 50 hours per week.
SB 5476 is proposing to allow agricultural employers to select 12 weeks a year to employ workers for up to 50 hours a week before overtime applies.
In 2021, the state legislature repealed a law that exempted agricultural workers from receiving overtime pay entirely.
This proposed law would affect anyone working on a farm, orchard, produce packing facility, or canning facility. Dairy workers would be exempt.
14th District Sen. Curtis King is the key sponsor of this bill, who is based in Yakima.
12th-District Rep. Keith Goehner is the key sponsor for the accompanying house bill. Rep. Goehner also owns a pear orchard in Dryden.
On Feb. 9, Sen. King presented his bill to the Labor & Commerce Senate committee, stating that it would provide flexibility for farmers during peak harvest seasons.
"I think it's a fair and equitable thing to do not only for the farmer but also for the worker as well," Sen. King said.
Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA)-Representative Enrique Gastelum testified in support of this bill, stating that the current overtime law is negatively affecting H-2A workers.
Ana Ramirez represented her farmworker parents to testify against the bill, stating that there have been times when her parents didn’t understand why they weren’t being paid overtime.
“They didn't understand why some of the most essential workers who contribute so greatly to our state's economy were paid the least and didn't receive overtime,” Ramirez said. “Farmworkers are not only essential to our state's economy, but to every single one of us as human beings who need food to eat.”
Ruben Orozco was one of the farmworkers who supported the bill, stating that the new overtime requirement is reducing hours for farm workers and that they need more than 40 hours to survive.
Vice Chair and 37th District Sen. Rebecca Saldaña acted as an interpreter for a portion of this hearing.
“It'd be even more if they could work those extra 10 hours and have that be time and a half with overtime,” Saldaña added. “That's my last comment because it's really hard for me to translate when I know that they're not given all the information.”
Wenatchee’s Chairman for the Washington State Tree Fruit Association Mark Hambelton said if this bill doesn’t pass, growers would need to hire more workers or limit them to 40 hours per week, and that the bill itself is a good compromise.
Edgar Franks with Familias Unidas Por La Justicia testified against this bill, stating that after weeks of negotiating on the overtime bill years prior, that those in the agricultural industry, whether it be lobbyists or other associations are not playing fair.
“We still feel that this bill being brought up is part of the culture of retaliation that's always present in agriculture when farmworkers speak up,” Franks said. “We feel that there's misinformation that the ag industry has put forward to blame legislation and hours cut on farm workers and finding ways to pay workers less.”
Andrea Schmitt with Columbia Services also testified against this bill, stating that the original policy for excluding overtime for farm workers was based purely on racism.
She later added “the industry has said over and over again in this body that there is a massive shortage of agricultural workers. If the industry is telling you the truth about shortages all these years, then a massive reduction in hours doesn't add up.”
Charlie Brown with the Washington Asparagus Commission said that without this bill, the asparagus industry in Washington would die just as it did in California.
“Growers have stopped planting asparagus because they know that they won't be able to afford to pay their own cutters,” Brown said. “The growers are plowing out asparagus fields because of the cost of labor under these new rules.”
Maria Acosta with the LULAC organization in Yakima says she supports this bill due to workers currently struggling with the hours they are currently getting.
“Everything is increasing and they don't have enough income to provide for their families," Acosta said. "They're looking for a second job and we're looking at a lot of crime because children are being unattended.”
Maria Rodriguez, who is the CEO of Visions Economic Development Center in Yakima, said this rule would help small farmers in her region.
“It's not an easy decision to completely understand, but coming to some compromise will definitely help small farms to be able to be paid competitive wages on top of getting their crop harvested, so they get some money at the end of the year and not a bill.”
Sybill Hyppolite with the Washington State Labor Council opposed the bill, stating that overtime pay is a fundamental right and that employers were given a slow three-year phase-in to accommodate these changes.
“This bill backs out of that agreement, a compromise that was favorable to employers, given the likelihood of the court to expand these rights to all agricultural workers on the courts’ terms,” Hyppolite said.
Elizabeth Strater with United Farm Workers said it was fundamentally not possible for growers to claim that they do not have enough workers to harvest their crops while also claiming that workers are earning less.
“Overtime equity doesn't mean that a farm worker can't work more than 40 hours," Strater explained. "It just means they would earn overtime pay beyond 40 hours just like every other worker.”
Strater also shared a letter where a farmworker wrote the following:
“I've missed so many irreplaceable moments with my children because I spent so much time working. This time we will never get back. As farm workers, our very life expectancy is shorter. Other states have passed overtime legislation for farmworkers to address this inequity. We deserve to be equal. We need to hold on to what we have, our lives, our health is valuable. Growers should not be able to just use up our lives. We are not tools or cattle, we are human beings.”
Lucy Madrigal from Bellingham testified against this bill, stating that many of the farmworkers who testified misunderstand this bill and that the purpose of this bill is purposely being manipulated.
“I think it's messed up to our farmworkers and they're not being told the truth,” Madrigal said.
Ryan Poe with the Washington Association of Wheat Growers says growers provide many benefits to workers and that they may remove benefits if they have to pay overtime.
Giovanni Severino with Progreso: Latino Progress opposed the bill, stating that it’s no secret the majority of farmworkers identify as Latino/a and that not supporting overtime pay for agricultural workers is systemic racism.
“If they really are ‘family,’ then you would consider them to be eligible for overtime pay,” Severino said.
Sen. King said that he found the accusations of racism disheartening and upsetting.
“I know that there are farmers that consider their employees to be family. I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it,” Sen. King said. “I think we need to be careful as we accuse people of things that, in my opinion, aren’t necessarily true.”
Chairwoman and 33rd-District Sen. Karen Keiser concluded the hearing by referencing when the Fair Labor Standards Act passed back in the 1930s, resulting in southern farmers asking for a similar exemption for their farmworkers, the majority of whom were black, and the exemption was put in place for 60 years.
“We are trying to address that inequity in this state and I think we are making real progress and I want to congratulate all of us for the progress we are making,” Sen. Keiser said. “You have a little farther to go and we'll get there.”
Check out the full hearing here.