By Gosia Wozniacka
Originally Published at CivilEats
Farmworkers perform some of the most arduous jobs, often in extreme heat, with heavy equipment, large animals, and a high risk that they will be exposed to hazardous chemicals. And yet—unlike the vast majority of Americans who get paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours per week—farmworkers are generally excluded from federal and state-level overtime pay.
Now, a court battle in Washington state could move the needle on the issue. The state’s Supreme Court is poised to decide whether excluding farmworker from overtime pay is unconstitutional. The court heard oral arguments in the case last week, and will likely issue its decision in the next 4-6 months. While worker advocates said the move is long overdue, spokespeople from the agricultural industry argued that eliminating the exclusion would place an undue economic burden on growers.
The ruling could affect about 100,000 workers. If the court rules for the workers, Washington would become just the third state to require farmworkers’ employers to pay overtime. In California, the nation’s top agricultural state, agricultural laborers began to qualify for the benefit this year, and in New York, overtime will begin in 2020—though the exact definition of overtime differs in each state.
While New York and California advocates went the legislative route to add overtime benefits, Washington’s court decision could have a broader impact because it would set a legal precedent.
Advocates say the court’s decision would right a historic wrong and help a hard-working group of low-income workers. They are also trying to advance federal legislation that would require a similar law to go into effect across the nation. The Fairness for Farm Workers Act is sponsored by Kamala Harris (D-CA) in the Senate and Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ) in the House of Representatives, though the bill has a slim chance of passing.
The fact that farmworkers often work long hours without any difference in hourly pay is “based in our racist history of excluding farmworkers from basic work and safety protections,” said Columbia Legal Services attorney Lori Isley, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who presented oral arguments in the case. “These are folks doing some of the most dangerous work and they really should be given the labor protections that other workers receive.”