All agricultural workers will be eligible for overtime pay starting in January 2022.
Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5172 and four other bills into law on Tuesday at the UFCW 1439 Union Hall in Yakima. As he signed the bill, he said he would call it the Tomás Villanueva Overtime Protection Bill after the late Yakima Valley farmworker activist.
“I’ve always been inspired by Tomás, and his spirit is in this hall today,” Inslee said during the bill signing.
Under the bill, all agriculture workers will start receiving overtime pay in 2022 and have a 40-hour workweek by early 2024. The bills passed both chambers with bipartisan support.
The bills have a three-year phase-in period to give employers time to adjust.
The new overtime law comes months after the Washington Supreme Court ruled the overtime exemption for dairy workers violated the state Constitution. Dairy workers had been paid overtime since the court ruling last fall; the new law removes the exemption for all agriculture workers. The exemption had been in place for more than six decades.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Curtis King, a Republican from Yakima, started as narrow legislation in response to numerous lawsuits against dairy growers seeking retroactive pay for workers.
The bill was revised in a state Senate committee to end the overtime exemption for all workers. The agriculture industry supported the bill after a change to phase it in over three years and a provision to stop lawsuits for back pay.
Those in the agriculture industry said previously that it would remain difficult for growers, particularly those with small, family-run operations, to find the means to pay overtime. Some may opt to reduce worker hours to keep them under the overtime threshold.
Agriculture industry officials say they plan to introduce legislation that would provide additional relief to growers, such as seasonality provision to give growers a higher hourly threshold for overtime during peak harvest periods.
During a brief session with reporters following the bill signing, Inslee said he believes the final version of the bill reflected cooperation from all, including growers and farmworker advocates, and that the agriculture industry will make it work, as other industry sectors have.
“It’s the right thing to do. It’s the just thing to do,” Inslee said.
Washington state is one of a handful of states, including California, that have passed laws that provide overtime for agricultural workers. And there’s an effort by President Joe Biden to extend overtime nationally.
Biden congratulated Inslee and the Legislature for the overtime bill’s passage in a written statement. He also urged the passage of federal legislation that would provide overtime to agricultural workers nationwide.
“For too long — and owing in large part to unconscionable race-based exclusions put in place generations ago — farmworkers have been denied some of the most fundamental rights that workers in almost every other sector have long enjoyed, including the right to a 40-hour workweek and overtime pay,” Biden said in his statement.
Workers represented by the United Farm Workers and Familias Unidas por La Justicia were present at the signing, and two workers spoke. Many uttered the phrase, “Si se puede,” or “Yes, we can.”
“I have worked in this industry for many years, and it’s very hard work,” said Ana Cruz, a longtime farmworker, with translation from Dulce Gutiérrez of the Washington State Labor Council. “It’s time for the farmworkers to have justice.”
Ramon Torres, a farmworker and president of Familias Unidas, paid homage to those who fought for additional protections and rights for agricultural workers. He talked about Yakima Valley warehouse workers who organized strikes last year over worker safety during the pandemic. He also thanked Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar, the two dairy workers who filed the initial class-action lawsuit that sought to end the state’s overtime exemption.
“Today, we want to celebrate the signing of a piece of legislation that will finally end a long-standing racist practice of denying overtime to farmworkers,” Torres said through a translator. “This is a building block to achieving worker liberation. We want to thank Mr. Martinez and Ms. Aguilar for speaking out and challenging these laws in court.”
Inslee signed several other bills into law that provided additional protections for workers, including farmworkers and health care workers.
- Senate Bill 5396 — The bill provides a sales-and-uses tax exemption for housing occupied by farmworkers for at least five years. The exemption does not apply to housing built exclusively for workers with H-2A visas, defined as any housing that does not have a single non-H-2A worker during a five-year period.
- Senate Bill 5190 — The bill provides health care workers benefits, including unemployment insurance and workers compensation, if they have to leave work due to a public health emergency.
- Senate Bill 5115 — The bill assures that frontline workers are notified of exposure to infectious disease and makes it easier to receive compensation for infection on the job.
- House Bill 1097 — This bill, which was based on a request from Inslee, protects workers from retaliation when they speak of hazards in the workplace. It also provides a grant program for small employers economically impacted by a public health emergency.