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Eleanor Baumgartner: Farmers have been let down by our Legislature

By Eleanor Baumgartner

Spring is here and soon farmers markets will appear with the allure of local, farm-fresh produce. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm people have for these markets does not translate into supporting farmers when it comes to agricultural policy.

Perhaps the greatest failure of the 2024 session of the Washington Legislature was not acting on the challenge of agricultural overtime policy.

A well-intentioned law passed in 2021 ended a decadeslong exemption for agricultural overtime, requiring employers to give farmworkers overtime pay at 1.5 times their regular wage after a fixed number of weekly hours. It was a phased-in approach; in 2022 overtime started after 55 hours per week, in 2023 after 48 hours and this year after 40 hours. The change was hailed as a moral victory by labor advocates.

The problem has always been that agriculture is not like other industries. It’s heavily seasonal and labor intensive. Margins are thin, especially for small farms. Farmers don’t set food prices: those are controlled by an increasingly concentrated food retail sector.

As Pam Lewison, Washington Policy Center’s director of agriculture has noted, “Farms are not able to absorb these kinds of costs because any increase in costs isn’t reflected in what we get paid. We can only get paid what the market will allow, and often those market allowance contracts are negotiated in advance.”

Farm owners care about their workers, but many simply can’t afford to pay overtime. Instead, they have been forced to bring in additional workers because it is less expensive to pay more people a regular wage than to pay overtime hours. It’s led to farms struggling, some even closing.

“We’re forced into this situation where we have to make difficult choices,” one farm owner told NPR last year. “If I’m not profitable, none of these people will have the jobs that they want to be at.”

Consumers don’t want to pay more for food – grocery costs are already hitting family budgets hard – but not only do local farmers not set the prices, they’re competing against countries including Mexico where producers pay a fraction of the labor costs.

Many farmworkers depended on the extra hours they worked through the busy harvest season because during winter there is little or no work. Now farmworkers are seeing their hours cut as employers seek to minimize overtime costs. In January, hundreds of farmworkers protested in Olympia.

“We thought the law was going to benefit us, but it ended up doing the complete opposite,” farmworker Jose Valdez told Capital Press at the rally.

Agriculture is vital to our state. We have more than 35,000 farms in Washington. Two-thirds are less than 50 acres, and 96% are family-owned. Agriculture generates $10.6 billion in revenue and adds 160,000 jobs. Agricultural products are our state’s second largest export.

Legislators first did not fully consider the consequences of the overtime legislation, and then did not seriously act to mitigate them.

So what could they have done to help?

In fact, Washington’s overtime law is much harsher than many other states. Only Washington and California currently have a 40-hour overtime threshold. California’s law remains controversial. Oregon took a more phased-in approach, with a 55 hour threshold dropping to 40 hours in 2027 and tax credits to offset the cost of overtime pay. New York introduced overtime wages in 2020 but the 40-hour threshold isn’t reached until 2032.

During the 2024 legislative session, farmers and growers had asked our legislators to relax the overtime rules for up to three months a year to accommodate peak harvest times. State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, introduced a bill to increase the 40-hour threshold to 50 hours for 12 weeks each year. The bill didn’t make it out of committee.

Instead, the legislative majority included a paltry $250,000 in the operating budget as a grant program to offset overtime costs – an amount so low, and with criteria so restrictive, that Lewison has calculated it would likely cover 15 of our state’s 35,000 farms.

Our farmers deserve better from our Legislature. And if something doesn’t change, someday people are going to wonder what happened to all the family farms providing that fresh local produce.

Eleanor Baumgartner, of Spokane, is the Eastern Washington senior adviser for the Washington Policy Center. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.

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