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Washington farmworkers could get historic overtime pay protections under new law

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/Joseph Sorrentino

About five months after a Washington Supreme Court ruling granted dairy workers overtime pay for the first time, a proposed state law stemming from the same ruling may extend the pay protections to farmers in general. 

SB 5172 would phase in overtime benefits for agricultural workers over the next three years, at which point eligible farm employees would earn time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours per week.

The United Farm Workers union praised the bill, which passed the state Senate, and is now being considered by the House.

“There’s just this historic inequity that hangs over this country,” Elizabeth Strater, Director of Strategic Campaigns with UFW, told KING5. 

“Overtime protections that most other folks take for granted are essentially their health and safety protections. The human body is not meant to be worked to death.”

The 5-4 ruling by Washington’s Supreme Court overturned more than six decades of state and federal law that has exempted farmworkers from overtime pay. The majority argued that the state constitution grants overtime pay and other worker protections to employees in dangerous industries, among which dairy one of the most hazardous. In 2015, diary work had the the highest injury rate in Washington’s agricultural sector, which employs more than 200,000 people, and the injury rate was about 120 percent higher than all other state industries combined.

When Washington granted protections to dairy workers in November 2020, it became the first state to give farmworkers protections through the courts.

In the early 20th century, nearly all farmworkers were Black. Today, the vast majority are Latino. Indeed, 99% of farmworkers in Washington are Latinos.

In the recent Supreme Court ruling, Justice Steven González highlighted the racist origins of overtime exemption for farmworkers. In the 1930s, federal lawmakers passed major labor reforms by making concessions – such as exempting the most Black workforce from minimum wage and overtime protections – to white-owned farms in southern states, he wrote. 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.

Strater said that the new legislation in Washington state is just the beginning.

“If there are industries that are allowed to feel entitled to just a limitless amount of dangerous labor from human beings based on the sector that they work in, that’s just a basically deeply historic wrong, that state by state is starting to be addressed in a more comprehensive way,” she said.

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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