Washington Ag Workers Are Exempt From Overtime. A State Supreme Court Case Could Change That

Maria Cuevas, a farmworker and community activist in Yakima, has marched in every Yakima May Day gathering since 1986, including with Cesar Chavez. CREDIT: ESMY JIMENEZ/NWPB
Maria Cuevas, a farmworker and community activist, has marched in every Yakima May Day gathering since 1986, including with Cesar Chavez. CREDIT: ESMY JIMENEZ/NWPB

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A class-action lawsuit argued in the Washington State Supreme Court Thursday is challenging the exemption of agricultural workers from earning overtime pay, alleging that it results in racial discrimination against the largely Latino workforce.

The action is brought by Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar and other dairy workers who have been employed by DeRuyters Brothers Dairy Inc. in the Yakima Valley. The suit alleges workers routinely work nine to 12 hour days, 6 days a week, without overtime pay. 

The original lawsuit, filed in 2016, also alleged the company failed to provide breaks for meals and rest. Those complaints were resolved through a $600,000 settlement in 2018.

Overtime pay is meant to protect workers from being overworked, according to Columbia Legal Services attorney Lori Isley in her arguments to the state Supreme Court Thursday.

“The purpose of the Minimum Wage Act and overtime, in particular, is to protect workers, to protect worker safety,” Isley said. “Excluding a group of workers doing some of the most dangerous work in the state cannot serve that purpose.”

The overtime exclusion grants employers an unconstitutional immunity from a requirement meant to protect workers’ health, according to the lawsuit. The exemption results in racial discrimination against the Latino workforce.

Attorneys representing agriculture associations say overtime is “ill-suited” for agricultural workers because their work is seasonal. In addition, time-and-a-half pay would burden small farms short on labor and constrained by commodity pricing set by the federal government. 

Timothy O’Connell, an attorney representing the Washington Dairy Federation and Washington Farm Bureau, argued before the court that equal protection laws prohibit intentional discrimination specifically. 

“When the statute was enacted, the vast majority of farmworkers were caucasian,” O’Connell said. “Even when the people made the conscious decision to extend minimum wage protection to farmworkers but not extend the overtime protection to farmworkers, the majority of farmworkers were still caucasian.”

The state’s overtime exemption for agricultural workers was based on the exclusion of African American farmworkers in the Jim Crow-era Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. That’s according to an amicus brief filed to the state Supreme Court last September by the national advocacy organization Farmworker Justice Project.

The state’s Minimum Wage Act of 1959 includes requirements for employers to pay workers overtime of at least one and a half an employee’s regular rate of pay after 40 hours on the clock. It outlines exemptions for a few types of employees, including Washington State ferry crews, newspaper vendors, prison inmates and agricultural workers.

At the end of his argument, John Nelson, attorney for DeRuyter Brothers Dairy, reminded the court that any modifications it makes to the overtime requirements can be made without applying the law retroactively.

“This case cries out for that,” Nelson said. “The DeRuyters are here for no reason other than that they followed the law to the letter of it’s terms that had been on the books for 60 years. It would be fundamentally unfair to hold them liable for damages or attorney’s fees.”

In 2016, DeRuyter Brothers Dairy faced a sexual harassment lawsuit from another worker in the Yakima County Superior Court. The case was settled out of court for $95,000.

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