Washington dairy workers granted overtime pay, paving the way for similar protections across agriculture industry

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/torwai

The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that dairy workers in the state have the right to collect overtime pay. The rest of Washington’s agriculture industry will likely gain overtime benefits as well, according to the Associated Press.

The 5-4 ruling overturned state and federal law that has exempted farmworkers from overtime pay for at least 60 years. The majority bloc of judges reasoned that the state constitution grants overtime pay and other health and safety protections to workers in dangerous industries, and dairy work represents some of the most hazardous. In 2015, Washington’s dairy industry had the highest injury rate in the state’s entire agriculture sector and was 121 percent higher than all other state industries combined.

While the ruling concerned the dairy industry specifically, it will likely apply to the more than 200,000 farmworkers in Washington’s agriculture industry, Lori Isley, a lawyer representing the dairy workers, told AP.

“Since 1983, the Washington Supreme Court has recognized that all farm work is very dangerous work, so it’s very easy to see how this will extend to all farmworkers,” Isley said. “We are so happy to see the law in our state moving forward in this direction.”

The justices enumerated the hazardous working conditions in the dairy industry, which include physical strain, exposure to animal diseases, and exposure to chemicals like pesticides that may increase the risk of neurological conditions and cancer.

Justice Steven González noted the racist origins of overtime exemption for farmworkers. In the 1930s, federal lawmakers succeeded in passing major labor reforms by making concessions to white-owned farms in southern states, he wrote. One of those concessions was the exemption of farmworkers – who were mostly Black – from minimum wage and overtime protections. Washington legislators enshrined this lack of worker protections in the agriculture industry into state law with the Minimum Wage Act of 1959.

“Excluding farmworkers from health and safety protections cannot be justified by an assertion that the agricultural industry, and society’s general welfare, depends on a caste system that is repugnant to our nation’s best self,” González wrote.

The supreme court ruling stems from a 2016 class-action lawsuit in which dairy workers Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar sued DeRuyter Brothers Dairy near Yakima, Washington. The two lead plaintiffs’ alleged that workers could not clock out until all cows were milked and the barn was cleaned, forcing them to work excessive hours without any extra pay.

While the dairy managed to settle most of the claims in the lawsuit, including its alleged failure to provide adequate meal and rest breaks, the overtime issue went unresolved until the supreme court weighed in.

Dairy workers are not the only Washington employees to gain overtime protections in recent months.

On July 1, white-collar workers who earn $35,100 per year became eligible for time-and-a-half overtime pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week. Starting January 1, 2021, the pay threshold will increase annually to an estimated $83,356 per year in 2028.

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us if you have questions about worker protection laws, or if you have an L&I, workers’ comp, injury, or other employment law claim. You won’t get better advice.

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