Washington state is on the brink of righting a longtime wrong, and the Yakima Valley can take a share of the credit.
Under a bill whose sponsors include Sens. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, and approved by both houses of the Legislature, agriculture workers would be eligible for overtime pay after working 40-hour weeks.
Just like nearly everybody else.
The rule wouldn’t take full effect until 2024, but workers would be entitled to overtime after 55 hours starting next year and after 48 hours the following year.
Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill, which stems from a court case that originated in the Lower Valley in 2016.
It all started when farmworkers Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar sued their Outlook employer, the DeRuyter Brothers Dairy, claiming they weren’t getting overtime pay, paid breaks nor meal times while they were milking cows. Their lawsuit asked for payment to make up for the time for which they and their co-workers hadn’t been compensated.
The suit argued that Washington’s 1930s-era minimum-wage law — which exempted ag workers from overtime pay — was unconstitutional.
Long story short, in a ruling issued late last year, the state Supreme Court agreed. That ultimately led to Senate Bill 5172, the legislation that now awaits Inslee’s signature.
Assuming Inslee signs the bill into law, farmworkers and their advocates can celebrate a landmark achievement — a just solution to a longtime injustice, particularly to people of color, who make up the bulk of Washington’s agricultural workforce.
Overtime compensation is a workplace rule that most of the rest of the labor force takes for granted. Rest breaks and fair pay for long hours are especially critical for agriculture work, which can be grueling.
Working 55 hours a week or more in a cubicle, at a cash register or on the sales floor is no fun. But most would agree it beats hard physical labor in unrelenting conditions — arriving before sunrise, enduring the 100-degree swelter and dust of Yakima Valley summers, bearing the endless booming of orchard cannons and always scrambling to keep up the pace.
Farmworkers can’t slip down to Starbucks for an iced coffee when their mid-afternoon motivation runs low. It’s tough, tough work.
It’s understandable, however, that ag employers aren’t thrilled with the news out of Olympia.
That’s especially true for small-business people like Manuel Imperial, co-owner of Wapato’s Imperial Gardens. He recently told the Yakima Herald-Republic’s Mai Hoang that labor accounts for 60% of his business costs. Owners like Imperial will definitely feel the effects of these changes — and they’ll likely pass along some of the cost to consumers.
That’s fine. That’s their right in a capitalistic system.
But whatever it means to consumer prices, a system that’s built on the notion that some workers aren’t as equal as others simply isn’t fair. It amounts to asking people to work for nothing.
Under capitalism — and soon under Washington law, evidently — farmworkers have a right to demand compensation for the hours they put in.
Just like everybody else.