Reckoning with Discrimination on the Farm through Overhauling Overtime Laws

On May 11th, Washington state got a new overtime law. It followed a windy, twisty path to the governor’s desk. The story started with a court case about dairy workers and overtime. Then the narrative transitioned from the judicial arena to the legislative one, as the Farm Bureau sponsored a bill to limit back wages resulting from the court case…But as the bill snaked its way through the legislative process, it eventually emerged as a bill that also secured additional farmworkers’ rights to overtime.

Our previous newsletters have tracked the overtime happenings in Washington state and in our last edition we said this bill was about to get signed any day. Now that it is the official law of the land in the Evergreen State, what next? What can farm business owners in states across the nation except for changes in their overtime laws?

As we mention in the article on Montana’s “food freedom” law, these jaw-dropping legal changes take on a life of their own. First one state passes something that feels like a colossal gamechanger of a law. Then another state does, then another. This is likely the trajectory of overtime laws for farmworkers in America. It is already happening. In Washington’s neighboring state of Oregon, a bill is already working its way through the legislative process that would require overtime for farmers. Others are sure to follow suit.

That’s because this is not just about overtime. What it really is about is discrimination. (Read this High Country Newsarticle for a helpful understanding of that connection.) We are in another period of racial reckoning in our country. The Supreme Court in Washington state held that it was discriminatory to deny overtime pay to dairy workers as 90-something percent of the workers were Latino. The overtime exemption for farmworkers is rooted in slavery and it has stayed firmly embedded in American jurisprudence.

We can (hopefully) all agree that addressing discrimination is a good thing. But, societal shifts come with growing pains. Farm business owners are going to have to adjust, perhaps by limiting hours to 40 per week and hiring additional workers. Farmworkers may have a hard time too. As farm business owners cut hours to avoid overtime, workers often need to seek an additional job to sustain their livelihoods. Farm workers themselves sometimes express opposition to overtime because of the additional strains of a second job and commute. A sophisticated discussion of the issues takes many issues into account.

Bracing for change is part of being resilient, and here at Farm Commons, we are all about resilience. Staying on top of the coming changes in the law is the way to maximize legal resilience.

Staying true to our values is another form of resilience, and reckoning with discrimination is one way we can value the dignity of all people. In case you missed it, Farm Commons just released a guide on how to avoid discrimination of all kinds in the workplace. Check out our federal guide, and a guide for Minnesota and for Wisconsin, and a podcast on discrimination that just came out.