Workers in Washington’s agricultural industry will soon be eligible for one of the most basic labor protections in the nation: overtime pay.
Senate Bill 5172, signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in May, builds on a recent Washington Supreme Court ruling that overturned state and federal law exempting dairy workers from overtime pay for at least the past 60 years. The exemptions trace back to the 1930s, when federal lawmakers seeking to pass major labor reforms gained the support of white-owned farms in southern states by agreeing to exclude the predominantly Black workforce from minimum wage and overtime protections. Washington enshrined these laws at the state level with the Minimum Wage Act of 1959.
The judges ruled that Washington’s constitution grants overtime benefits and other health and safety protections to employees in dangerous industries. Dairy work in particular, and farm work in general, involve some of the most hazardous labor conditions in the country.
The bill, which goes into effect in January, creates a gradual path to full overtime pay for farmworkers by 2024. In 2022, they are entitled to overtime pay for any hours worked over 55 hours a week; 48 hours a week in 2023; and 40 hours a week by 2024.
Critics of the bill say that it will limit workers to 40 hours per week, due to thin profit margins in the industry.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, who introduced the bill and voted for it, no longer supports it because of a provision that could make farm owners responsible for years of back overtime pay.
Proponents disagree. “California already has some of these progressive policies in place. They are already rolling out and the sky did not fall,” Elizabeth Strater, who represents United Farm Workers, told KING5 news.
“This is really, as much as anything, about being seen as an equal person, being seen as having, deserving the same equal rights as someone who works in a factory or in a hospital or in a school or in a steel mill,” Strater said.
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