OLYMPIA — A Senate committee set aside 45 minutes to hear competing views on overtime wages for farmworkers, though likely no bill will pass this year to alter the current law.

The Democratic-controlled Labor and Commerce Committee granted a hearing Feb. 9 on Senate Bill 5476 introduced by Yakima Republican Curtis King. The bill proposes to raise the overtime threshold to 50 hours a week for 12 weeks a year. The farm would choose the weeks.

Ellensburg orchard manager Jaime Reyna told the committee that lifting the threshold would allow workers to put in more hours in the summer.

“The summer is when the guys pile up a little bit of money to be able to economically make it through the winter,” he said.

“We’re not against paying overtime. We just want a little flexibility, so we can provide more hours to the guys,” Reyna said. “If I pay 20 hours of overtime to every guy I have, I’m going to go broke.”

Washington lawmakers, responding to a state Supreme Court decision, phased in time-and-a-half overtime pay for farmworkers. The threshold last year was 55 hours and drops this year to 48 hours. The threshold will be 40 hours in 2024.

Several farmworkers said they expect to work fewer hours and earn less money. “Nobody asked me if I wanted a change in how much I can work,” said Joel Cervantes, an employee of Double R Hop Ranches in Yakima County.

Until the state Supreme Court ruling in 2020, Washington exempted agricultural employers from paying overtime wages. The exemption mirrored the 1938 federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Edgar Franks, political director of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por La Justicia, said the original exemption from paying overtime was rooted in racism against black farmworkers.

“We want Washington to uphold progressive laws and not ones that still uphold systemic racism,” he said.

The federal labor law set a national minimum wage and mandatory overtime pay for some workers. Agriculture was exempted from the law, as were other seasonal occupations.

Some scholars attribute agriculture’s exemption to racist Southern congressmen, though white farm laborers outnumbered black farm laborers by about 3 to 1, according to the 1930 census.

University of Iowa professor Marc Linder argued in a 1987 article for the Texas Law Review that the overtime exemption extended a pattern of racial discrimination in New Deal legislation.

Linder noted that the 1935 Social Security Act excluded farmworkers and domestic workers, two fields that a high percentage of black workers were employed in.

“Direct legislative history explaining the FSLA’s exclusion of farm workers is virtually nonexistent,” Linder acknowledged.

In 2010, a historian employed by the Social Security Administration, Larry DeWitt, wrote that the claim that the program’s original scope was racist had become an accepted “historical fact.”

DeWitt, however, argued the claim was “conceptually flawed” and not supported by evidence.

Of the workers excluded from Social Security benefits, 74% were white and 23% were black, according to DeWitt.

“This hardly constitutes a compelling initial case for the assumption that the provision targeted African Americans,” he wrote.

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