Washington state is on the cusp of mandating overtime pay for farmworkers

Washington state is just days away from having a historic law on its books. It’s already passed the Senate and the House, and is on its way to the governor’s desk for signing, which is very likely to happen, rumor has it. What’s this historic new law? Farmworker overtime pay. If it passes, the law will be the first in the country to require time-and-a-half pay for farmworkers who work over 40 hours in a week. California has enacted a similar law, but it won’t take full effect until 2025. This law will be fully in effect by 2024.

Overtime pay for farmworkers is not required under federal law, and it is not required in most states. (See this map.) It seems bizarre that overtime pay is not mandatory where workers are enduring some of the harshest and most dangerous working conditions – heat, sun, smoke, heavy machinery, etc. But, so was the bargain that was made back when the Fair Labor Standards Act was created in 1938.

So why now? Why in Washington? Interestingly, this bill grew out of the chaos and confusion that followed a Washington state Supreme Court case in November 2020, which determined that it was illegal and discriminatory to withhold overtime pay to dairy farm workers, who happened to mostly be Hispanic. In the wake of this decision, farmworkers sued for backpay (in some cases up to three years of it) and tension in the agricultural industry in the state grew high. Ironically, Senate Bill 5172 was introduced as a way of blocking farmworkers from accessing backpay.

Senate Bill 5172 fell flat on the floor, but was revived with a new twist. In its new iteration, the bill blocks farmworkers from accessing backpay, but also mandates overtime pay for farmworkers going forward. This time, the bill gained momentum and here it is, set to pass by the end of the legislative session this month.

In an interesting twist of fate, a bill meant to limit farmworker pay ended up increasing it for the longhaul… Oh the drama that unfolds at the intersection of the judicial and legislative branches. So many twists and turns…

For more information about the emerging new law, see this article in The Counter.