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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WA farmworkers voice varying opinions on increased overtime protections

Estella Marem works in the hops field at Loftus Ranches, a fourth-generation hop farm in the Yakima Valley on May 22, 2018.   (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jasper Kenzo Sundeen Yakima Herald-Republic

SUNNYSIDE — A battle over changes in overtime pay for Washington’s agricultural workers continues to play out across the state.

Washington farmworkers will qualify for overtime after a 40-hour work week for the first time on Jan. 1, 2024. Some employers and owners say they won’t be able to afford the changes and will have to cut hours, rather than pay workers more. Labor advocates say farmworkers deserve to be paid time-and-a-half like most other Washington workers.

Those laboring in fields and orchards in the Yakima Valley right now fall on both sides of the disagreement, mirroring discussions in Olympia a few years ago. Some want to earn as much as they can by working as many hours as they can and don’t want to see hours cut. Others see overtime pay as a way to pay their bills and make ends meet.

The Center for Latino Leadership organized a “Let Us Work” rally in Sunnyside on Wednesday. It drew workers who advocated against the overtime regulations, but also others who supported them.

“Checks are getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” said organizer Judith Jackson in Spanish. “But costs are getting higher.”

United Farm Workers’ director of communications, Antonio De Loera, noted that agricultural workers have been denied benefits like equal overtime pay for decades, exclusions rooted in racist labor laws from the 1940s.

“At its most basic level, the UFW rejects the idea that any worker should be excluded from any labor law based on their race, national origin, or occupation,” De Loera said. “2024 will be the first year that farm workers will be treated fully equally with other workers, instead of as a less valuable underclass denied the same basic overtime pay standard as everyone else.”

The changes stem from a 2019 lawsuit against a Lower Yakima Valley dairy and a 2021 state law that granted dairy workers and agricultural workers overtime pay, ending a decades-long exemption in the industry.

Overtime pay was phased in over three years, with the weekly threshold falling to 55 hours in 2022, 48 hours in 2023 and 40 hours from 2024 onward.

A rally in Sunnyside

The Center for Latino Leadership rally in Sunnyside aimed to share information about the law and call on workers to express their opinions in Olympia. Organizers led workers in chants calling for more hours.

Salvador Sanchez, a contract worker from Mexico City who works as a machinist seasonally near Zillah, has been coming to the U.S. to work for the last six years and this is the primary income for his household.

“It’s affected my check by 20%, it’s reduced the work, reduced my spending power. I make less,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “The affects on my family, it’s difficult to continue making less money while doing more. It’s impossible.”

Foreign workers, including those in the H-2A program, are covered by the overtime regulations. Sanchez said he would support overtime pay if employers gave them the hours, but said he was often sent home after working 40 hours in a week.

In that case, he would rather work the extra hours and earn more money. He asked lawmakers to listen to visiting workers’ voices.

Other attendees who are associated with the agricultural industry agreed. Arnold Mendoza is a bus driver for H-2A foreign guest workers and remembered working up to 80 hours a week to help put his daughter through college. Now, he might have to move to another industry to earn enough, he said.

Other attendees expressed skepticism at the rally and advocated for the overtime laws. Benedicto Gonzalez is a farmworker who lives in Sunnyside and works in hops fields and apple orchards. He likes the overtime law.

“A local worker with 40 hours, you live, but if the overtime comes, you earn more,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. “I recommend the overtime and rancheros (agricultural owners or growers) want to remove the overtime.”

With 15 hours of overtime pay one week, Gonzalez said he can earn enough more than half of next week’s paycheck, which he sees as beneficial. He began earning overtime pay this year and was excited to see it in his paycheck.

Gonzalez added that local workers see a lot of increasing costs for rent, child care, food and insurance and that overtime would help cover that. He was concerned that many of the workers at the rally were not from Sunnyside and didn’t face the same local cost increases.

Maia Espinoza, executive director of the Center for Latino Leadership, said at least 70 workers attended the rally. Hundreds more attended rallies in Quincy held earlier in the week.

“We feel that there hasn’t been an opportunity for workers to voice their opinion on this side of the issue,” she said.

She said the center got involved when they saw workers complaining about reduced hours.

“We want to provide that space for workers to self-advocate,” Espinoza added. “Workers do understand this issue.”

Espinoza said there was a mix of H-2A, seasonal foreign farmworkers, and domestic farmworkers.

Yakima Valley growers feel the pinch

In separate interviews earlier this year, some employers in the Yakima Valley said they simply cannot afford the pay increases that come with the overtime law.

“Right now, we’re limited to 48 hours without paying overtime,” said Rob McCormick, owner of McCormick Farms near Selah, on Sept. 16. “We don’t see much (money) from the price you pay for fruit at the grocery store — we don’t get anything until it’s been grown, picked, packed and shipped. So we cannot afford to pay time-and-a-half.”

McCormick said that the overtime law might make it harder to pick all of their crops during harvest seasons, when hops and fruits need to be picked and packed at specific times to ensure ripeness.

Employers try hard to stay under the 48-hour threshold by hiring more workers during busy seasons or sending some workers home early. Some have reduced overall hours, leading to smaller paychecks.

“You’re also trying to keep down the hours and not go into (overtime) too much, so you really have to juggle,” said Austin Cuellar, who has worked at his family’s hop farm near Toppenish. “Sadly, it has led to hours being cut for the workers.”

McCormick is concerned about the reductions and said he has hired many of the same workers for years.

“They’re here to work and they’re very good workers,” he said.

Larger farms might be able to bring in foreign workers or pay more for labor, but he simply can’t.

“Next year, at 40 (hours) I’m going to have to leave fruit on the trees. I just don’t have enough people,” he said.

Labor advocates hold strong

Farmworker unions said that attempts to exclude agricultural labor from overtime protections are unfair.

Edgar Franks, political director for independent farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), noted that a majority of farmworkers in Washington are Latino and that working long hours at demanding, physical jobs can affect workers’ health.

Overtime rules help “sustain workers for the hard times. You’re putting your body and health at risk when you work over the 40 hours,” Franks said. “You might be making more if you work over 80 hours a week, but what does that do to your body?”

De Loera added that UFW sympathized with the difficult market conditions that agriculture producers and owners face, but that profits should not come at the expense of workers.

Franks was more skeptical. He called on employers to prove their economic struggles.

“If workers aren’t making enough and employers aren’t making enough, where’s the money?” Franks asked. “We would have to see where those financials are going, what they’re doing.”

Franks added that FUJ, which is based in the Skagit Valley, has seen success with the overtime law. Workers are still working long, 60 — 70-hour weeks and earning more with overtime pay.

“Here in our union, work hasn’t been cut, the hours haven’t been cut,” he said.

De Loera said he was concerned with the larger, systemic implications of the need for workers who need more hours to sustain themselves.

“Eight hours of work — especially physically grueling work of the type required in agriculture — should be enough to make ends meet,” De Loera said.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members through the Yakima Valley Community Fund.