Washington Ag Community Warns No Action By Lawmakers Could Destroy Farm Economy

When the Washington Supreme court ruled in November that farm workers should receive time-and-a-half pay for work over 40 hours per week, it opened a bit of a Pandora’s Box. In their ruling, the High Court did not indicate if farm workers could seek retroactive pay for the previous three years, which has already triggered several lawsuits against the dairy industry. Currently, there are roughly two dozen suits against dairies around the Yakima, Tri-Cities, Othello area with more possible.

Jay Gordon, Policy Director at the Washington state Dairy Federation said during a Zoom press conference Tuesday if these lawsuits are allowed to demand back pay from the past three years, it could ruin the industry.

“You know, if they go after every dairy farm in the state, we estimate there somewhere between $90-$120 million in penalties for three years back because of this ruling and changing the law.”

Gordon said those figures were determined using an hourly wage of $16, which comes out to roughly $48,000 annually.

And while it’s only been the dairy industry named in these lawsuits, the feat is other commodities could be targeted.

“Having to pay retroactively for three years of overtime will be the nail in the coffin that ruins the apple industry in Washington state,” said April Clayton an organic fruit grower from North Central Washington. “We followed the law, and we shouldn’t be penalized for following the law.”

In response, the Ag industry is pushing for the passage of Senate Bill 5172 and House Bill 1217, which would prohibit farms from being retroactively sued. SB5172 will have a hearing Thursday before the Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee starting at 8 a.m.

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