Washington State has the opportunity to become the second state to provide agriculture workers with overtime compensation.
Currently, farmworkers do not receive overtime pay. In 1938, agriculture workers were specifically excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act and many researchers have noted that New Deal-era legislation was crafted to block Black and other POC agricultural workers from receiving overtime pay.
Edgar Franks, the political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, believes SB 5172 represents a stepping stone for getting agriculture workers more rights.
“It’s correcting a historical wrong,” Franks said. “I think the overtime bill is an attempt to start rectifying labor laws to not exclude workers. We know that the first bills like this and a lot of the labor laws were intentionally set up to exclude People of Color. We think that this overtime bill is long overdue. So we’re glad that it’s moving forward in Washington.”
During peak seasons, overtime work is often expected of agriculture workers, sometimes requiring them to work sunup to sundown.
“It’s not unlikely during peak season, at least in Skagit County, where we are just gonna be out almost 80 hours a week, depending on the weather and all that,” Franks said. “It’s not uncommon to be working 12–14 hours a day.”
SB 5172 is currently awaiting vote by the Washington State House of Representatives, having already passed through the Senate with bipartisan support. This positive response across party lines makes supporters of the bill hopeful for its success.
“I think the bill is a pretty fair bill for both the industry and for workers,” Franks said. “Hopefully it can move as is. I think it should be moved on quickly, because it received bipartisan support in the Senate, where we thought it was going to be harder to pass, but it passed overwhelmingly. I think in the House it should pass quickly.”
The bill would require overtime pay to be phased in over three years. An amendment excludes dairy workers, who will be receiving overtime pay immediately in response to the November Washington Supreme Court ruling Martinez-Cuevas and Aguilar v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy, which found that failing to pay overtime to dairy workers was unconstitutional.
By 2022, workers completing more than 55 hours of work would receive overtime pay. By 2023 workers completing more than 48 hours a week would receive overtime, and by 2024 workers completing more than 40 hours a week would receive overtime.
There is a concern that amendments could be made on the floor that would ultimately diminish the impact this bill would have on agriculture workers. Some lawmakers have proposed an amendment that would allow the agriculture industry to not pay a worker overtime for a period of twelve weeks.
“The industry was proposing to carve out 12 weeks where they can be excluded from paying overtime to workers. And it usually would be during the busiest time of the season,” Franks said. “You could be working 40 hours a week at any other time of the year, but these 12 weeks employers could be excluded from paying overtime and have the workers out there working sun up to sun down without fair compensation and putting their health at risk.”
Franks stressed that these amendments and exclusions are part of a long history of keeping agricultural workers from accessing the rights they deserve.
“These kinds of bills where you create exclusions for farmworkers, where these exclusions aren’t common in any other industry, create a tiered system for farmworkers. Then there’s everybody else, and farmworkers are still being treated as second-class workers,” Franks said. “So we don’t want to see anything that exempts or keeps workers down and treated differently from other industries.”
Franks also emphasized that overtime work has physical and mental consequences, therefore workers deserve compensation for that.
“One of the things that this bill tries to address is that working over 40 hours becomes a risk to your health and wellbeing. There are stats and everything that proves that. And I think that’s why initially they started implementing a 40-hour work week, because of all of the accidents and injuries that happen when you start working over. And if you’re asked to be working longer than you should, you should be compensated as such.”