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Farm workers are missing out on income

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Longer days and increasing temperatures are enjoyable, but for farmers and farmworkers they mean longer work weeks. The onset of the growing season, the last efforts of planting, and the accompanying irrigation schedules are expanding the farm workweek. Unfortunately, for many farm workers they are unable to take advantage of the increase in hours.

The recent passage of agricultural overtime laws in California, Washington, and Oregon has limited the hours of farm workers. Historically, farmworkers have been able to work many hours during the growing season, to compensate for the low/non-existent hours during the winter. Now on the West Coast (and a few other states) phased-in overtime mandates exist but farmworkers are not better off.

Washington requires overtime payments when hours reach above 55 hours per week in 2022, 48 hours per week in 2023, and 40 hours per week in 2024 and beyond. Oregon is following a similar, but slower schedule but is a year behind with the 55 hours per week cap in 2023, with full implementation by 2027. California has already fully implemented an overtime requirement above 40 hours per week.

The intent of removing the agricultural overtime exemption, was to improve the economic situation of farmworkers. “Parents don’t have to work as much to make money so they could cover all the expenses and spend some time with their kids,” said Juarez, who is a member of Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

However, economics came into play. Farmers are working to minimize hours and employ more workers or use more machinery if possible, limiting the earning potential of farm employees. Many farm employees are no longer working as much at one farming operation. Instead, they are going without hours or are bouncing between operations to make up the difference. Though the second option is difficult to attain as schedules often conflict between businesses.

Small family farmers are not excluded (with only small delays to the rule) and can no longer work with farmworkers to find solutions that meet both their needs. Farmers are forced to hire more workers to keep costs lower and/or work even longer hours themselves. Farmworkers end the growing season far below their earning potential of previous years.

A 55-hour work week amounts to five 11-hour shifts, with a two-day weekend. During planting, growing, and harvesting, farms run 6 to 7 days per week, preferably during most of the daylight hours. In the Treasure Valley of Idaho and Oregon, there are 12 hours of daylight in mid-March. If 12 hour days are postponed to April, 55 hours per week is reached quickly.

Farmworkers have to leave a lot of money on the table because of the state legislatures.

Mountain States Policy Center roughly estimates that a farm worker would have $10,000 less in income with the 55-hour cap and $20,000 less in income with the 40-hour cap. The model assumes that farm worker hours from March to October would range between 9.5 to 12 hours per day. Oregon and Washington workers are capped at 55 hours, but farm workers in other states would be able to work up to 6 days per week at 12 hours a day (72 hours per week) (This is a conservative estimate). The model also assumes that farming operations would minimize overtime hours for the majority of employees. The average wage was $16.36, using U.S. Bureau of Labor’s average farmworker wage.

Is it fair for legislators to force farmworkers into higher levels of poverty? Absolutely not. Earlier this year in the Washington legislature, a legislator stated that farmworkers don’t understand this issue of agricultural overtime, but they absolutely do. Farmworkers are living the reality of $10,000 less a year and will soon experience further losses in income.

It is some legislators who don’t understand that removing the overtime exemption doesn’t mean farmworkers will see an automatic increase in income. Farms work on a tight margin and will do all they can to minimize labor costs. Overtime is not an automatic conclusion. For workers hoping to earn a year’s worth of income in 6- 8 months, this income path is no longer possible.

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