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Washington Supreme Court rules dairy workers must get overtime

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 5, 2020

A dairy cow scratches its neck at Coulee Flats Dairy on April 25, 2018, at a dairy near Mesa, Wash. The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favor of dairy workers, saying they should have been eligible for overtime pay.  (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
A dairy cow scratches its neck at Coulee Flats Dairy on April 25, 2018, at a dairy near Mesa, Wash. The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favor of dairy workers, saying they should have been eligible for overtime pay. (By Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Thomas Clouse The Spokesman-Review

A deeply divided Washington Supreme Court on Thursday ruled 5-4 in favor of farm laborers, saying dairy workers in the state should have received overtime pay as part of the Washington Minimum Wage Act.

While the decision came from a case brought by dairy workers, it appears the ruling will require all farmers to pay overtime. However, it’s not yet known whether those farmers will have to pay overtime retroactive to the suit’s filing , said Jay Gordon, policy director for the Washington State Dairy Federation.

“We are incredibly disappointed and are considering our options because this will be devastating,” Gordon said. “This puts Washington farmers at a massive disadvantage. This is the first court-ordered mandatory overtime for agriculture in the United States.”

In a 2016 class-action suit brought by Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar, the dairy workers alleged that they were not compensated for time worked in excess of 40 hours while working in dangerous conditions at the Deruyter Brothers Dairy, in Outlook, Washington, which is between Yakima and the Tri-Cities.

According to court records, the dairy milks about 3,000 cows per shift. There are three shifts a day operating seven days a week.

The suit was joined by 300 other workers from the Deruyter Brothers Dairy. The employees alleged that the dairy failed to pay minimum wage, did not provide adequate rest and meal breaks, and failed to compensate workers for duties before and after their shifts and overtime for work exceeding 40 hours.

In February 2018, the trial court allowed the Washington State Dairy Federation and Washington Farm Bureau to join the case as defendants. The parties eventually reached a class settlement resolving everything except the the overtime pay issue.

After oral arguments, a judge in Yakima ruled in favor of the dairy workers. The judge noted, according to court records, that the right to work “treats a class of workers in a significantly different fashion than other wage earners engaged in the business of selling their labor.”

The judge did not rule on the question of whether the Legislature had a reasonable ground for providing a privilege or immunity to the agriculture industry by allowing it not to pay overtime to farmworkers. That argument, and whether the state’s minimum wage act was constitutional, was sent to the state Supreme Court for review.

Writing for the majority, Justice Barbara Madsen said ”no reasonable ground exists” for the state to give an exemption to the agriculture industry to avoid paying farmworkers overtime and that the exemption violates the state constitution.

Joining Madsen were justices Steven Gonzalez, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, Mary Yu and Charles Wiggins.

Writing the dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Debra Stephens said the majority ruled the exemption as unconstitutional “despite the fact that entitlement to overtime pay is not a fundamental right implicating our state privileges and immunities clause.”

Stephens also wrote that the “legislative policy decision to exempt agriculture workers … from overtime protections” does not constitute evidence of discrimination as it relates to the equal protection clause.

Stephens was joined in the dissent by justices Susan Owens, Charles Johnson and Mary Fairhurst.

Justice Charles Johnson also wrote a separate dissenting opinion, noting the decision by the majority upends a law that farmers had relied on for more than 60 years.

He wrote that farmers “should not be punished for that reliance” and that the ruling should only apply going forward and not require farmers to pay overtime for past work.

“The cost of paying overtime for hours worked in the past could have a devastating impact on farm employers broadly,” Johnson wrote. “The far reaching impact of retroactive application inflicts more injustice than is necessary.”

Martinez, one of dairy workers who filed the original suit, praised the high court’s decision.

“I’ve had to work lots of overtime hours under very dangerous conditions,” he said in a news release. “We deserve to be treated like other workers in dangerous industries and be paid fairly for our work.”Reporter Thomas Clouse can be reached at (509) 953-0561 or at tomc@spokesman.com

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