On November 5th, the Washington Supreme Court declared that farm employers in Washington state must pay employees overtime for all hours worked over 40 in the week. This is a landmark decision because it is the first time a court has ever determined that denying farmworkers the same overtime pay (most) everyone else receives is illegal.
Washington is among a handful of states in our union that require any form of overtime pay for farmworkers. Federal law exempts farm employers from having to provide overtime pay and most states follow their lead.
The basis for the court’s ruling is intriguing as it is based on the principle of equal protection.. The court opined that where 99 percent of the farmworkers in the state are Latino, the law exempting farm employers from paying overtime violated citizens’ right to equal protection under the law. The justices stated, “Excluding farmworkers from health and safety protections cannot be justified by an assertion that the agricultural industry, and society’s general welfare, depends on a caste system that is repugnant to our nation’s best self.”
This decision comes on the heels of other lawsuits in Washington state filed on behalf of farmworkers who were denied health and safety protections during the coronavirus pandemic. The opinion references this failure of the state’s agriculture industry to provide these protections, and mentions the myriad other ways that Latino farmworkers are treated like second-class citizens.
It will be interesting to see where this goes and whether momentum carries to other states in the near future. In the meantime, Farm Commons continues to suggest that paying overtime to farm employees is a best practice for attaining legal resiliency on the farm as it prepares the farm to meet uncertain and changing regulations. Considering overtime pay is also a strategy for farm business owners to realize their own goals for equity.