Backers of a bill that would require farmers to pay their workers overtime are hoping to revive the proposal’s chances with an offer: the state of Oregon would pay most of farmers’ added costs.

With the legislative session hurtling toward adjournment, state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, introduced a last-ditch amendment to House Bill 2358 on Tuesday. The change would soften the impact of the bill, which in its current form would ensure that farmworkers are paid 150% of their hourly rate for any work beyond 40 hours a week.

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But the amendment — approved by the House Rules Committee on a party-line vote Wednesday — comes with a major price tag as the Legislature gets ready to finalize a new two-year budget by June 27. It would earmark $100 million to assist farmers with some of their overtime costs for the next three years.

A golden statue of a person perches atop the top of the exterior of the Oregon Capitol in Salem.

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Bradley Parks | OPB

Salinas acknowledged Wednesday that was a “hefty request” so late in the session, and that it could face a tough path to passage. “But I believe that budget priorities are a good barometer of a caucus’ values, so if we can’t get it done this session I’m hoping we can figure out a way to get it done next session,” she said in a text message.

HB 2358 has been championed by labor groups, who say that employees who carry out extremely arduous and low-paying work are being denied pay that is rightfully theirs, and point to racist origins of denying farmworkers strong labor standards. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 exempted farmworkers from receiving overtime pay, partly at the behest of lawmakers from the South who did not want the standards to apply to Black laborers.

“I urge you to look at this issue from the perspective of a farmworker,” Reyna Lopez, executive director of the group Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, wrote in testimony in support of the bill. “These thousands of dollars are coming from the pockets of farmworkers, despite being one of the lowest paid workers in the country and often facing economic hardships.”

Farmers have strenuously opposed the bill, arguing that overtime pay would fundamentally change an economy that relies on slim profit margins. The added costs of overtime pay could lead them to cut worker hours or increasingly automate their operations, they argue, leading to the opposite of what advocates are trying to achieve.

Salinas says her proposed amendment is a nod to those concerns.

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Under the change, overtime requirements would be phased in over the course of three years. Farmers would have to pay workers time-and-a-half for any work beyond 55 hours a week in 2022, 48 hours a week in 2023 and 40 hours a week in 2024 and beyond.

But the more major change is that farmers would stand to receive state subsidies for their added costs — at least for a while. As amended, the bill would create a $100 million Agricultural Worker Overtime Account that would pay qualifying farmers for up to 80% of their overtime costs in 2022, 2023 and 2024.

Farms that have committed more than five violations of employment or civil rights law would be barred from applying, and applicants would be given preference based on what proportion of their income was spent on overtime. Additionally farms employing an average of 25 workers or fewer would get preference.

Salinas says the idea was a show of goodwill. “I felt like we needed to show that we heard the concerns of the farmers and that I was willing to ask the state for a transition fund to help cushion the economic impact,” she said.

But the farmers are not impressed. The Oregon Farm Bureau still opposes the proposal, saying overtime costs and their potential impacts need further study.

“Moving any version of this bill is premature,” said Jenny Dresler, a lobbyist for the OFB. “While transition funds may keep workers employed ... we are concerned we are likely to see [farmers] immediately adjust their schedules if it’s too hard to navigate or too hard to plan three years down the road.”

In an online survey the farm bureau sent to members, the majority of respondents said employees work between 55 and 70 hours a week during peak season.

If Salinas’ idea gains approval — a possibility that all lawmakers seemed to acknowledge Wednesday is remote this year — Oregon would join six other states that grant at least some overtime pay rights to farm workers, according to the group Farmworker Justice. California was the first state to adopt a policy, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill this year implementing a phase in like the one Salinas proposed.

In a hearing Wednesday, lawmakers in both parties expressed surprise that the bill was even still up for consideration, after a workgroup hashing over the issue failed to come to agreement.

“I didn’t know that we would be moving this bill, or taking any action with this bill,” said state Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, who agreed with farmers that the issue needs more study. “To point at Washington and California, I don’t think we have enough good information from either one of those states to see that ultimately the worker is benefiting from this transition.”

Democrats on the committee moved the bill to the Legislature’s budget committee, where it will vie for funding with the many other bills still up for consideration this year.

“It’s not fair not to provide overtime to these workers,” Salinas said. “So that’s the ultimate goal. I don’t care when it happens, but it needs to happen. It needs to happen soon.”

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