Oregon wineries, food processors oppose proposed work week limit

Workers at A to Z Wineworks in Newberg, Ore., sort grapes during the 2014 harvest in this file photo. Oregon's wineries and food processors oppose a bill that would limit work weeks to 72 hours, arguing it would hinder periods of peak production.

SALEM — Oregon’s food processors and wineries are alarmed by a bill to reduce the maximum number of hours that manufacturing employees can work per week.

The proposal originated as an attempt to clarify how to calculate overtime paid to Oregon’s manufacturing workers, which had recently been in dispute.

However, the most recent version of the bill being considered by Oregon lawmakers would limit the maximum work week to 72 hours for manufacturing jobs, which food processors and wineries argue will impair their ability to handle the influx of crops during seasonal peaks. Work weeks are currently limited to 91 hours.

Paying overtime is expensive, so food processors would prefer to have enough workers as to avoid lengthy work weeks, said J.L. Wilson, a representative of the Northwest Food Processors Association.

However, such companies are often located where crops are grown, not where there’s an abundance of people, so they don’t have a sufficient labor pool from which to pull, he said.

As a result, these processors must rely on existing employees working longer during periods of peak production, Wilson said during a June 20 hearing on House Bill 3458.

“This is going to fundamentally disadvantage rural Oregon,” he said of the proposed limit. “They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t have to, in many instances.”

Similarly, harvest irregularities can force growers to suddenly provide wineries with larger amounts of grapes than expected, resulting in unpredictably heavy work loads, said Ellen Brittan of Brittan Vineyards in McMinnville, Ore.

Wineries have little choice but to extend work hours to prevent the fruit from rotting, she said. “You just have to deal with it.”

Some workers at Brittan Vineyards have logged as many as 86 hours per week, but they do so willingly to maximize overtime pay, she said.

“They want to be sure they can make a significant amount of money during this short window of opportunity,” Brittan said. “We have people fighting for those overtime hours.”

Not all Oregon employers are upset about the most recent version of HB 3458 before lawmakers.

Associated Oregon Industries, a non-profit representing businesses, believes the 72-hour work week will be challenging but is acceptable as long as overtime rules are clarified.

Last year, the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries changed its guidance for manufacturing employers, finding that workers must be paid for both daily and weekly overtime hours combined. Traditionally, they simply had to pay whichever amount was greater.

For example, someone who worked 11 hours for two days and eight hours for three days spent a total of 46 hours at work that week, earning six hours of weekly overtime pay.

Since the person also exceeded the 10-hour daily cap twice, that counted toward two daily overtime hours.

Employers would usually just pay the worker for six hours of weekly overtime, but under BOLI’s new guidance, they must combine the daily and weekly overtime hours to pay for eight hours of total overtime.

A bill originally proposed in the Senate amended the law to allow employers to return to the traditional overtime approach, but groups representing workers objected to the change.

As a result, the proposal resurfaced in the House as HB 3458 with the addition of a work week limit of 60 hours.

Under an amendment to the bill currently before the House Rules Committee, that limit was revised to 72 hours per week for 90 days under hardship circumstances.

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