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Agricultural workers hurt by Supreme Court opinion


November 12, 2020

OLYMPIA–When lawsuits are filed on behalf of agricultural workers, often, the first question should be: how will this lawsuit affect all workers and are all workers on board with those potential consequences?

Thursday the Washington State Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 opinion removing the overtime pay exemption for dairy employees in Washington state and opened the door for the consideration of retroactive payment of overtime for the last three years. The results could be that dairies face huge new costs as punishment for following what was the law until this week.

You can find the ruling here.

The decision raises serious questions for employees and employers when looking at overtime pay and unintended consequences for those not part of the class action lawsuit.

The current average hourly wage of dairy employees in Washington state is $17/hr. Dairy employees are going to be looking at either a curtailment of their hours or a lessening of their wages to ensure their employers are able to meet the new overtime requirements while maintaining operation of their businesses.

Are these really the benefits workers were hoping for when this lawsuit was filed?

In addition to making hard choices that have a negative effect on employees they have often employed for a number of years, dairy owners are also faced with the possibility of being punished for following the letter of the law.

The potential for retroactive compensation payments to current and former dairy employees poses a serious concern for dairy owners. According the Washington State Farm Bureau, the retroactive compensation would cost a medium sized dairy approximately $1.5 million, a potentially business-ending cost.

Retroactive compensation would force dairy owners, who up until Thursday, had been following our state’s constitution and following the overtime wage exemption, to pay their current and past employees for three years of back overtime wages, punishing those dairy owners for being law abiding citizens.

The ruling is also likely the beginning of a wave of agricultural wage lawsuits to be filed related to overtime pay in our state. Thursday’s ruling opened a proverbial Pandora’s Box for every ag sector that remains exempt from overtime pay to be brought to the bench for a similar punishment.

-Lewison is the Director of the Initiative on Agriculture with the Washington Policy Center. Her email is [email protected]


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