Ag overtime bill gets hearing but doesn’t move

Feb 5, 2024

Despite pleas and protests from farmworkers and farmers, the Washington State Senate Labor & Commerce committee refused to move Senate Bill 5476 before policy cutoff. 

The bill would allow for 12 special circumstance weeks, as determined by agricultural employers, during which farmworkers would be able to work up to 50 hours before overtime pay was required. The legislation was introduced during the 2023 legislative session and received a hearing in the same committee. Where the previous hearing was disrupted by editorial comments from committee members, the 2024 hearing was rushed by the desire to put a check mark in a box.

Proponents of the bill pointed out the devastating effects agricultural overtime has had on farmworkers and their employers. Alejandro Anita, of Sumner, noted that as a supervisor at the farm where he works, it has been a challenge to implement the overtime law, specifically to explain to his fellow employees that they will be working fewer hours.

“I feel the stress my coworkers are going through,” Anita said. “We are worried about our future.” Anita shared that he and his coworkers were concerned about fulfilling their financial obligations and the diminished quality of their lives because of reduced hours. “The extra hours we work allow us to have peace and tranquility.”

April Clayton, an orchardist near Chelan, shared that her family had made the difficult decision to cease their farming operation because of the overtime law. During her testimony, she noted her farm voluntarily provided homes at no cost to nine farmworkers, seven of whom had families.

“We’re concerned with what our workers … Sorry. Right now, we are concerned about our workers,” Clayton said. She noted some of the people living on the farm had been there for 40 years, bringing siblings from Mexico to work alongside them. “We’ve been through quinceneras. We celebrate all the holidays together. … If we have to sell our land, those families … those children … will be without homes.”

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Clayton noted the decision to close their farm was financial. She stated up to 90 percent of their operating costs were due to labor under the overtime law and shared that her payment for 900 pounds of gala apples after the last harvest was just $87.

“That will not even cover the cost of picking it. Please give us this exemption,” Clayton said. “That is all we’re asking for.”

Under the overtime legislation, the state took a phased in approach to overtime pay for all farmworkers. Jan. 1, the hours threshold for overtime pay dropped to 40 hours a week and requires employers to pay time-and-a-half for any additional hours worked. Unlike other states that have enacted overtime pay for farmworkers, Washington state did not provide tax incentives, seasonal exemptions, or any combination of the two when the overtime law was enacted.

What agricultural employers did have was the word of Senate Democrats that they would go back to the negotiating table to discuss those exemptions or incentives during the legislative session immediately following the implementation of the overtime law.

Three years later, no negotiations have occurred.

Instead, agricultural employers and farmworkers are imploring lawmakers to add flexibility back into their working lives. As evidenced during the hearing this week, until flexibility becomes part of the overtime law, farmworkers and their employers will suffer. Adding 12 weeks of 50-hour work weeks will restore some of the income farmworkers have lost but it cannot replace farms like Clayton’s.