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Discontent lingers over seasonal overtime pay regulations

Discontent lingers over seasonal overtime pay regulations

State lawmakers this legislative session enacted SB 5172 sponsored by Sen. Curtis King (R-14), which protects farmers from being required to issue retroactive overtime pay resulting from a State Supreme Court ruling. Yet, discontent remains among farming advocates about both the legislation and the application of overtime pay on agricultural labor.

“Overtime is something that needs to be figured out,” Save Family Farming Communications Director Dillon Honcoop said. “It’s going to be difficult, and that’s why people are feeling mixed about it. It doesn’t provide any seasonal exemptions.”

Washington Tree Fruit Association Executive Director Jon DeVaney told Lens that “no one is thrilled that the policy change was necessary, but we supported the bill because it was better than waiting for the issue to be resolved by the Supreme Court. Some justices thought it should be retroactively applied.”

Under the state’s overtime pay law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week must be paid 1.5 times their regular hourly wage unless otherwise exempted. However, Washington is an outlier compared to other states in how it applies the law to seasonal work. Originally, SB 5172 would have merely blocked lawsuits from being filed which seek retroactive overtime pay from farmers, but the final version added provisions that gradually incorporate overtime pay regulations so that farmers must also pay workers 1.5 times their hourly wage if they work more than 40 hours a week, starting in 2024.

Washington Policy Center Agriculture Director Pam Lewison told Lens that “we need to address how to get some seasonal flexibility…because agriculture has periods of time where you can’t send some people home. If your budget does not allow for that time and a half, you can’t send people home just because you can’t afford it.”

She added that “when hops mature and are ready for harvest, it’s essentially a 24-hour-a-day harvest. They’ve got to be able to do a 50-hour work week without being penalized for having a crop that needs immediate harvesting.”

DeVaney also believes the overtime pay shouldn’t apply to seasonal work because “they frequently have a short burst of activity followed by having no work at all. It’s like a college student pulling an all-nighter before a final. You can’t do it all the time.”

Honcoop said: “Farming is connected to the natural cycle of life. Weather and plants. That’s where a 40-hour work week is a cookie cutter that doesn’t fit the realities of farming. Frankly, it doesn’t fit the life pattern, the lifestyle, the culture of farmers – or farm workers, either. Those claiming that this is a big win for workers are apparently not talking to the many workers I’m hearing from. A lot of workers are leaving dairy farmers for sectors that haven’t had that level of clampdown on overtime. They want to be able to maximize their earning potential when the work is available.”

DeVaney hopes there will be legislation enacted in future sessions that will exempt the industry from such requirements. “There’ll be a lot of negotiations, because the reason for it is they think there’s a strong policy argument for it, but getting a majority of legislators to understand any agricultural issues has been increasing challenging over the years.”

SB 5172 takes effect on July 25.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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