Inslee signs bill mandating overtime pay for Washington state farmworkers


By 2024, Washington farmworkers working more than 40 hours per week will all earn overtime pay under a bill signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday.

In Washington, the minimum wage is applied to workers ages 16 and older and based on increases to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers. Minors ages 14 to 15 years old are entitled to earn 85% of the state minimum wage, which rose to $13.69 per hour in 2021.

The bill, SB 5172, was introduced in response to a ruling by the state supreme court that determined exempting farmworkers from overtime pay, as applied to dairy workers, violated the state constitution. The November ruling did not say whether farmworkers were entitled to retroactive overtime payments, which a draft of the bill would have banned.

As passed, the bill bans retroactive overtime payments under a 12-page striking amendment from state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines. The bill, as amended, phases in overtime pay for farm workers at 1.5 times the minimum wage starting in 2022. The rate applies to farmworkers working 55 hours a week in 2022, 48 hours a week in 2023, and all farmworkers working more than 40 hours a week by 2024.

Sponsored by Republican lawmakers, the bill quickly cleared both legislative chambers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new focus on the challenges faced by frontline workers,” Inslee said. “They have kept our state moving through one of our most challenging times, working through personal hardship and challenges.”

Present at Tuesday's bill signing was Washington farmworkers represented by the United Farm Workers and Familias Unidas por La Justicia.

“I have worked in this industry for many years, and it's very hard work,” said Ana Cruz in translation from Dulce Gutiérrez with the Washington State Labor Council. “It's time for the farmworkers to have justice.”

Farm groups like the Washington Farm Bureau lobbied for a 12-week limit to overtime payments to account for busy times of the year like harvest season. Its members say SB 5172 fails farmers.

“The lack of seasonal flexibility will, without a doubt, will impact the agriculture community in a time they can least afford it,” said bureau spokesperson Breanne Elsey. “There's a point where you can no longer compete with neighboring states and countries who can produce the same goods at a significantly lower price.”

The state Employment Security Department reported in 2018 that the average wage for most crop pickers in Washington ranged from $17 to $39 per hour.

SB 5172 was supported by the Washington State Dairy Federation to shield farm owners from overtime backpay. Dan Wood, executive director of the federation, says overtime backpay would have cost the state's dairy industry $120 million alone. The cost to the statewide agricultural industry could have totaled $2 billion, Wood said.

For Wood, the bill is a double-edged sword. He says the bill protects farmers from backpay, but farmworkers may still see their hours cut, leaving them to find other lines of work. According to Indeed, the base salary for a Washington milker is $16.19 per hour.

“The simplistic view is to say, ‘we got time and a half for farmworkers,” Wood said. “But the farmworkers are making less money, or they have a more complicated life and less time with their family, because now they've got to coordinate two jobs.”

According to the state Department of Commerce, Washington is home to 39,000 farms, which produce some 300 commercial crops and livestock products valued at $7.9 billion. There were more than 97,000 Washington farmworkers in 2016, the state Employment Security Department reported. At least one in five are undocumented, the American Council on Immigration found, and many still pick crops like apples by hand.

Washington lawmakers have made relief for migrant workers a priority in the state's $59.2 billion two-year budget, which includes $340 million in federal dollars for the state's Immigrant Relief Fund created in 2020.

Washington joins several states, including California, mandating overtime pay for farmworkers with the blessing of the Biden administration. Oregon is considering a similar measure.

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