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Overtime flexibility or worker rights? SB 5476 looks at flexible overtime rules for ag workers

by By Renee Diaz, Columbia Basin Herald
| February 3, 2024 11:18 AM

OLYMPIA — Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, has introduced Senate Bill 5476 which will grant agricultural employers the flexibility to select up to 12 weeks per year, during which they can employ workers for up to 50 hours weekly without triggering overtime if it is passed into law. 

The legislation was proposed due to the increasing production costs, impacting farmers’ ability to compensate workers. April Clayton, co-owner of Red Apple Orchard, said their farm recently closed due to operational costs. At the public hearing for the bill, she underscored the significance of passing the bill, emphasizing the potential repercussions for workers who rely on the farm for stable income and housing.

“We can stop this from getting worse. We can stop more farms from going under and we can protect the workers that (we owe so much to),” said Clayton. 

As of Jan. 1, 2024, Washington’s minimum wage is $16.28 per hour, with mandatory overtime pay for most employees working beyond 40 hours in a seven-day workweek. Previously exempt from overtime pay until 2021, agricultural employees are now required to receive overtime for hours exceeding 40 in a workweek. 

The bill mandates employers provide an annual initial disclosure to employees at least 30 days before the first expected special circumstance week. For workers with temporary visas, this disclosure must be provided no later than the date of the worker’s visa application. Employers retain the ability to change selected weeks with one week’s written notice. 

Opponents argue that previous wage agreements are negotiated in good faith, expressing concerns that any reduction in hours, especially during peak harvest times, could negatively impact workers. Edgar Franks, from Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, voiced worries about raising the overtime benchmark. 

“The importance of overtime is getting workers out of poverty, lifting the most marginalized workers in our community. It might not meet the full answer but it is a step in the right direction. We defend overtime for agricultural workers and we’re against this bill,” said Franks.

Adding another perspective, Sybill Hyppolite from the Washington State Labor Council argues that the bill weakens the fundamental value of overtime. 

“This bill also undermines the core value of overtime pay. Overtime accomplishes two things, fair compensation for excessive work hours and an incentive for employers to better respect workers’ family and personal needs by allowing for better work-life balance,” Hyppolite said. 

Proponents, including King, assert that the bill addresses the unpredictability faced by farmers, allowing for seasonality and better adaptation to market fluctuations. 

Alejandro Anita has been with Knuston Farms for 50 years and said his coworkers face a great deal of stress due to reduced hours.

“As a supervisor, it has been very difficult to execute this new law and lower the hours of work. We are worried about our future, as we have the responsibility to provide for our parents and families,” said Anita. 

SB 5476 raises questions regarding the balance between worker rights and the economic challenges agricultural employers face. 

“We are trying to come up with a balance that will help our farmers, and protect our agricultural workers as well. I think we have all heard about the impact this has had on our farm workers and the income they have been previously making,” said King. 

The bill contains an emergency clause, if passed it will take effect immediately. 

The bill contains an emergency clause, if passed it will take effect immediately. A hearing was held on Jan. 30 for the bill that is also sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, and Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah.