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New law makes WA agricultural workers eligible for overtime pay

Orchard worker Francisco Hernandez reaches to pull honeycrisp apples off a tree during a thinning of the trees at an orchard in Yakima in June 2020.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press file
Orchard worker Francisco Hernandez reaches to pull honeycrisp apples off a tree during a thinning of the trees at an orchard in Yakima in June 2020.

Agricultural workers in Washington state would become eligible for overtime pay under a bill signed Tuesday by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

Senate Bill 5172 creates a phased-in path toward full overtime pay for agricultural workers by 2024. For 2022, they ensure overtime pay for any time worked over 55 hours a week; 48 hours a week in 2023; and 40 hours a week by 2024.

Washington joined a handful of states that grant overtime pay to agricultural workers.

Inslee noted that the state has more than 30,000 farms that produce over 300 different commodities, many of them picked and processed by hand. The state has some 200,000 agriculture workers.

“I appreciate and am pleased that Governor Inslee came to Yakima to sign SB 5172 today,” said bill sponsor state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. “It took a great deal of effort through tough negotiations and compromise to get the bill to today’s signing. There is more work be done, but this is a great step forward.”

The bill got bipartisan support and even had the backing of farm employers, who said it will bring a level of certainty to their labor costs. Farmworkers have been exempted from overtime pay since 1938, although some states such as California and New York have extended those protections in recent years.

The bill grew out of a landmark November decision by the state Supreme Court that granted overtime protections for dairy workers, but did not cover the remainder of the agricultural workforce. The Supreme Court ruled against the owners of DeRuyter Brothers Dairy Inc. in deciding that dairy workers are immediately due overtime pay after 40 hours “because they worked long hours in conditions dangerous to life and deleterious to their health.”

Jon DeVaney of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association in Yakima has said agricultural employers were moved to support the bill because of a fear of losing future litigation on the issue, and the possibility they might then be required to make huge retroactive overtime payments.

Inslee also signed a package of bills that will increase worker safety protections and expand support for frontline workers during a public health emergency.

House Bill 1097 protects from retaliation workers who come forward about workplace hazards.

The legislation also establishes a grant program for small employers during a public health emergency. The costs of additional safety and health measures during already tough economic conditions proved to be a significant challenge for employers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new focus on the challenges faced by frontline workers,” Inslee said Tuesday. “They have kept our state moving through one of our most challenging times, working through personal hardship and challenges. The bills I am signing today represent an acknowledgement of the lessons we’ve learned and offer hope for a stronger path forward.”