Will Oregon’s overtime law end up costing farmworkers?

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — A new law took effect in Oregon this month, one that begins a five-year process of mandating that farmworkers receive overtime pay after working a certain amount of hours per week. In this first year of the law, the threshold is 55 hours per week — anything worked above that must be paid time and a half.

That threshold is set to gradually drop over the next few years until it’s in alignment with other full-time work. In 2025, it goes down to 48 hours. By 2027, it will be 40 hours.

This applies to all of the 85,000 or more farm workers across Oregon, who have not been entitled to overtime pay for more than 80 years.

Oregon’s law also extends tax credits to relieve some of the burden on farmers. Most farmers will be eligible for one of three tiers of tax credits, depending on how many people they employ. Tax credits will incrementally decline between 2023 and 2028 and then will end or be re-evaluated by lawmakers.

For proponents of the law — including former state representative and now Congresswoman Andrea Salinas, who was chief sponsor of the Oregon House bill — it’s an unequivocal good. The law ensures that farmworkers, many of them migrant laborers, receive pay comparable to other Oregonians.

“I don’t blame anybody today for setting that system up but I do take responsibility for changing a system that was rooted in racism,” Salinas said of her support for the bill.

Opponents of the bill, like the Oregon Farm Bureau, argued that it would wreak havoc on the state’s fruit, vegetable and dairy industries. Farmers would be forced to reduce worker hours and look to machines to do the work in order to avoid paying overtime, ultimately employing fewer workers, the bureau said.

While it’s far too early to measure the success or failure of the Oregon law just yet, both Washington and California provide examples of states that have adopted similar legislation and have had more time to see the outcomes — especially California.

A recent article from the Sacramento Bee looks at precisely this issue in the Golden State. And the headline provides a fairly succinct summary: “Overtime law was supposed to help these California workers. Many make less money now.”

California’s overtime law began in 2016. As of this month, smaller farms have to pay overtime for anything over 50 hours per week. Larger farms, those with at least 26 employees, are already down to the standard 40-hour-per-week threshold.

Farmworkers told the Sacramento Bee that they aren’t really seeing the benefits of overtime pay because their hours are being cut to avoid it. That means their take-home pay is actually suffering as a result.

One worker told the newspaper that over the last two years, his take-home pay dropped from $1,000 a week to $600 after his hours were slashed from 60 to 40.

The president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, which opposed California’s bill, said that the bill has been frustrating for employers as well. Growers cut hours, reduced the acreage that they farm, hired more workers to make up for the shortened hours and turned to machines or crops that are less labor-intensive.

Despite the fact that all of these developments sound bad for farmworkers, the United Farm Workers union, which backed the bill, told the Bee that the pain is the point — the necessary consequence of a movement toward a more just agricultural economy.

“The amount of workers that are getting their hours cut speaks to the reality that there was a ton of unpaid overtime,” Antonio De Loera-Brust, communications director for UFW, told the Bee.

Loera-Brust added that farmworkers often live right at the poverty line, and “any attempt to change that is shaking the very foundations of the industry.”

The UFW Foundation argues that federal standards for the minimum wage and overtime pay, first established in 1938, explicitly excluded farm workers for bigoted reasons, based largely on the skin color of the people who were performing that kind of labor.

“Excluding farm workers from overtime pay was wrong then and it is wrong now,” the foundation’s website states. “Although farm workers feed the nation, the mean and median income of a farm worker family ranges from only $20,000 and $24,999 a year.”

Oregon’s overtime law is similar enough to California’s that it’s likely we will see similar dynamics here over the next few years — the ones promised by the Oregon Farm Bureau and the California Fresh Fruit Association.

 

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