Oysters

New Washington state overtime legislation will probably have an impact on some Willapa Bay oyster operations.

An overtime bill passed by the Washington Legislature gives producers time to adjust and protects them from backpay lawsuits set in motion by a recent state Supreme Court ruling.

Senate Bill 5172 applies to agricultural producers — including Pacific County cranberries, cattle, dairy, vegetables, etc. — and likely also will intersect with the county’s much larger aquaculture industry. Overtime is required for working more than 55 hours a week starting in January; more than 48 hours in January 2023; and over 40 hours in January 2024.

The bill — and similar legislation working its way through the Oregon Legislature — is sure to prompt dramatic changes in farm labor in the Pacific Northwest.

Congress in 1938 established a federal minimum wage and provided for overtime pay for work over 40 hours. The act provided a host of job classifications, including farmworkers, that were exempt from the overtime rule.

Washington lawmakers in 1959 adopted a similar provision into state law.

In a case filed by two former milkers from Yakima County, the Supreme Court struck down the exemption in a 5-4 decision last November. Left unclear by the state ruling was whether it applied just to dairies or all farms, or whether those impacted could collect three years in back wages as made possible under a separate state law.

A bill originally was introduced to protect farmers from having to retroactively pay overtime. It was amended instead to require all farmers to pay overtime.

After much wrangling and negotiation, a bill was finally hammered out that will require Washington farmworkers be paid time-and-a-half pay after 40 hours in a week beginning in 2024. It also protects farmers from those retroactive pay lawsuits.

Much has changed since 1938. If fairness were the only consideration, it’s hard to argue against paying farmworkers overtime.

But the economics of agriculture have not changed. Farmers are still price takers, not price makers, who cannot simply pass along higher labor costs to consumers the way retailers and manufacturers — though limited by the impacts of competition — do.

Oyster growers also must work within the sometimes-narrow confines of a commodity market, and confront several other severe operational challenges, including lack of good options for controlling destructive burrowing shrimp. Interestingly, although SB 5172 specifically includes “cultivation, raising, harvesting and processing of oysters,” it doesn’t mention clams, which have become important products on Willapa Bay.

So, farmers will do whatever they can to cut down on labor by adopting more automation, different cropping systems or by choosing to produce less labor-intensive crops.

No doubt some workers will receive deserved overtime. But, in the end, there may be fewer workers receiving a paycheck.

Times change. Time will tell if this legislation will produce the benefits sponsors intend.