Rep. Mark Klicker: Proposed agriculture overtime bill would hurt all sides

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What started out as an effort to prevent lawsuits over retroactive overtime pay for farmworkers has turned into a policy that would hurt both farmers and farmworkers, alike.

Senate Bill 5172, the agriculture overtime bill, is an unusual piece of legislation. It will either help protect employers from retroactive overtime or be disastrous to the agriculture industry. How could one bill have two outcomes that are so completely different?

This legislation, as it was originally introduced, was intended to protect farmers and ranchers from having to pay retroactive overtime to their employees. However, as currently amended, the bill would require employers to pay overtime for employees (employed before Oct. 11, 2017) for up to three years. They would also have to pay an additional 12% annual interest penalty.

So, why was this bill brought to the Legislature in the first place? It was introduced after the Washington State Supreme Court ruled on November 5, 2020, that an exemption on overtime pay for dairy workers that dates back more than six decades was unconstitutional.

In the ruling, the Court stated that working in dairy production in our state was an inherently dangerous job, thus making it unconstitutional to make it overtime exempt.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, originally sponsored Senate Bill 5172 to prevent courts from ordering retroactive pay in overtime wage claims if it creates a “substantially inequitable result.” However, the bill has been amended several times, which has all but wiped out its original intent.

In fact, Sen. King recently said the bill that came out of committee had “changed 180 degrees.”

Additionally, if the bill passes as amended, not only will the original purpose of the legislation be lost, but it will also result in negative outcomes for both farmers and farmworkers.

  • For starters, the Supreme Court decision could put hundreds of farms and ranches out of business unless the current bill is amended to protect employers from having to pay retroactive overtime.
  • Most agriculture workers will actually receive smaller paychecks because they will only be allowed to work forty hours or less per week. Most farmers cannot afford to pay overtime, so they will simply hire more people and give them less work, or they will take on more responsibilities themselves.
  • The remaining farmers and ranchers will either reduce their payrolls by cutting their workforce, downsizing their operations, or moving forward with mechanization.
  • Ultimately the employee is the biggest loser. They will have less opportunities to work or be forced to find a second or even third job to cover their losses.

While the Court's ruling was intended to protect farmworkers, in many instances it has already had the opposite effect. Several workers have reported their paychecks have actually decreased since the ruling took effect, especially those who were on salary.

If this bill passes as it currently stands, farmers and ranchers will continue to lose good employees and farmworkers will continue to lose opportunities and income. This policy had great potential when it was introduced, but if it passes now, it could have devastating, unintended consequences.

Rep. Mark Klicker represents Washington's 16th legislative district, which includes the cities of Pasco and Walla Walla.

As printed in the Dayton Chronicle and the Prosser Record-Bulletin

State Representative Mark Klicker, 16th Legislative District
410 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(509) 240-1638 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000