Washington farm workers say overtime threshold is lowering their pay

Farmers are rallying for changes to an overtime threshold that would limit workers to 40 hours of work before qualifying for overtime.

VNE/File Photo

VNE/File Photo

By Spencer Pauley | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – Washington state farmers are rallying for changes to an overtime threshold that would limit workers to 40 hours of work before qualifying for overtime starting next year.

According to Save Family Farming, approximately 300 Washington farmers gathered at Quincy Valley Museum Park on Thursday in protest the impending overtime law. A previous rally on Oct. 5 drew more than 500 workers frustrated with the law.

Both events were hosted by the Center for Latino Leadership.

Senate Bill 5172 – passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2021 – enacts the phase-in of the overtime threshold over the course of three years. Starting in 2024, the threshold would drop down to 40 hours a week.

Prior to SB 5172, Washington law had exempted farm work from overtime laws with some workers being able to work upwards to 60 hours a week. However, the Washington Supreme Court tossed out that exemption for dairy farming in 2021 and implied that the same logic likely applied to other types of farming as well.

The legislation did not affect dairy farming hours because the Supreme Court had already imposed a 40-hour workweek.

A fix to the overtime threshold was proposed last session, but the Washington state Senate did not take any action on the bill. Senate Bill 5476 would have allowed workers to increase their income by permitting them to work up to 50 hours per week, during specific busy farming seasons, before overtime pay begins.

Farmers and other supporters at the recent rallies are looking for policymakers to come up with a fix to the overtime threshold. Possible fixes to SB 5172 include a seasonality exemption, which was what was proposed in SB 5476.

One speaker at the rally in Quincy said that lawmakers did not consider that all employers would be willing to pay overtime, limiting workers to less than 40 hours of pay.

“This, as we say about the American dream – the opportunity we have to work here, nothing is being done,” Quincy-area Farm Worker Alfredo Gomez said in Spanish. “It is going to waste because at this rate it is no longer going to be affordable for people to come and leave their family for nine months in their country.”

State Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, voiced his disapproval of the overtime law at the rally, saying Republican house members pushed back on the bill when it was discussed, but ultimately had the law “shoved down our throats.”

“I’m here because I care [and] because this law is bad – it’s wrong and it hurts everybody,” Dent said at the rally.

Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, asked the crowd in Spanish what changes they want to see implemented when it came to the overtime law, signaling that he would bring it to Olympia in the near future.

Ybarra added that workers have told him they don’t make as much money due to the overtime threshold and that it impacts them more than their bosses.

The Center Square reached out to Ybarra and Dent for comment on their work to address farmer workers’ concerns, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.