Washington farm worker overtime threshold flaws could lead to supply shortages

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(The Center Square) – A law that will soon restrict farm workers to 40 hours a week before they qualify for overtime pay is not only affecting workers’ wallets, but may soon affect produce prices.

Senate Bill 5172 was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2021. It enacts the phase-in of the overtime threshold over the course of three years. Currently, Washington state farm workers can work up to 48 hours before they qualify for overtime. In 2024, the threshold would drop down to 40 hours a week.

State Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, talked to The Center Square about the new law’s impact on the state. Dent said, along with farm workers seeing less hours, producers are also affected by the overtime threshold, which could lead to supply and demand issues.

“[Washington state] already has a shortage of labor – [farmers] are not able to get their work done in time,” Dent said in a phone interview.

Harvest season is the busiest time of the year for farmers when workers have to be able to pick crops within a short span of time, causing supply and demand issues. Dent added that Senate Bill 5172 takes away from producers’ ability to make a profit when workers can no longer work extra hours.

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 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.

Dent said he is considering tweaking the proposed bill to garner more support from fellow lawmakers. One idea he is considering is a special agricultural overtime rate that would differ from other industries.

The state representative noted that some workers get paid as they pick produce.

“How do you do overtime with how much you pick?” Dent questioned. “It just doesn’t work.”

The Center Square previously reported on a farm workers rally in Quincy last week, which Dent attended. The majority of farm workers in Washington come from other countries, mainly in Central and South America. Dent said many of those workers came up to him and voiced their support for policy changes.

“They don’t want to work 40 hours a week, they want to work 60 to 80 hours a week,” Dent said. “They want every hour they can get so they can get back home and take care of their families.”

The Center Square reached out to state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, the Seattle Democrat who sponsored the overtime threshold law, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

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