This week, with the help of a translator, a woman named Ruby gave Oregon lawmakers a list of reasons why it was important to support a plan to give farmworkers overtime pay.
She spoke of returning to work weeks after giving birth due to a lack of money: “I would get soaked in breast milk when I worked in the fields,” she said in Spanish.
She tried feeding her baby during lunch, but she was so hot, and her breastmilk was so warm, her child got sick: “… It was a very emotionally heavy situation.”
Eventually, she quit, she told lawmakers. But her husband is still a campesino.
He works 50 or 60 hour work weeks without overtime. His body is breaking down from working so long and hard, she said.
“Es inhumano y es muy frecuente en nuestra comunidad,” Ruby said.
“It’s inhumane (treatment) and very prevalent in our community,” the translator said.
The woman urged members of the Joint Committee on Farmworker Overtime to pass House Bill 4002, legislation that would give farmworkers in Oregon the ability to earn overtime pay after working 40 hours. She said the change would help farm workers to have time “to rest and live a healthier life.”
The measure is the most divisive of the Oregon Legislature’s 2022 short session. Lawmakers have largely been split along party lines, with Republicans echoing concerns of many farmers who say the legislation would devastate the state’s agricultural industry and force family farms to move toward automation or sell to large corporations.
But most Democrats, who hold the majority of seats in both chambers, have been adamant that farm laborers who work more than 40 hours should earn time-and-a-half pay. The bill passed out of committee on Thursday on a party line vote and now heads to the House floor.
Denver Pugh, who noted he was a sixth-generation Oregon farmer, also spoke to lawmakers on Thursday remotely from his seed farm in Shedd, Oregon.
Pugh said he tries to be a good employer because he wants the same farmworkers to return to his farm year after year.
“If they don’t like the job, last I knew this was a free country, they could go find another job,” he said, adding that McDonald’s and many restaurants are hiring.
Part of why farm workers aren’t fleeing to the service industry, Pugh said, was because they wanted to work longer hours and earn more money; the service industry often prevents workers from logging more than 40 hours a week.
“You’re going to force us to take (the service industry) model and go to less hours and more automation … listen to us in the actual ag(ricultural) world,” he told lawmakers.
There are about 86,000 farm workers in Oregon every year, according to Diego Contreras, who is a Ph.D. student at the University of Oregon researching the topic. Contreras said actual hours worked and how much farms pay is difficult to track with certainty because it’s difficult for laborers to file wage violations. Through surveys, he estimated the average Oregon farmworker logs 10 to 12 hour days and most earn about $17,000 a year, he said.
“We understand the concerns of growers and how this might affect their economy,” Contreras said. “It’s important to remember they created an economy that is based on the overexploitation of people, and we’re not even trying to have better conditions, but the minimum conditions people need to survive.”
Farmworkers were excluded from overtime in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, a decision that was rooted in racism.
Both Washington and California now have laws giving farm workers overtime.
In Oregon, the latest proposal would both phase in the hourly requirements for paying overtime and create a tax credit to help with the transition. For example, farmers wouldn’t be required to pay overtime wages at more than 40 hours a week until 2027. Farms with more than 50 full-time employees could claim a tax credit equal to 60% of overtime paid in 2023 and 2024, 45% in 2025, 30% in 2026 and 15% in 2027 and 2028. It’s estimated the tax credits would total about $55 million annually. Dairies would be exempt.
Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, whose family has a grass straw farm, said the tax credit phase-in would simply allow farmers time to mechanize. Boshart Davis suggested alternative ideas, raising the overtime threshold past 40 hours or giving farmer workers an exemption during peak harvest season, but her amendments were not adopted.
“It gives them time to get rid of labor, it gives them time to switch to less labor-intensive crops,” she said, adding later that farmworkers are “being promised or being told in error that they are going to get overtime.”
If lawmakers do not approve the measure, there is a good likelihood the question of whether farms must pay overtime would be settled through the Bureau of Labor and Industries. Officials at the labor agency have said they believe they have authority to change the statutes setting agricultural pay.
Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said he hoped lawmakers would reach an agreement to address the topic themselves. If BOLI were to tackle the topic, it’s unlikely farmers would receive any kind of tax break to help them transition.
“Personally, I don’t want to punt to BOLI,” Bonham said. “We were elected officials … and it makes more sense for us to draft something for all of Oregon.”
Democratic Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, who has been a key negotiator on the bill, said after months of intense discussion he’s optimistic lawmakers are on the cusp of approving the legislation.
The bill now heads to the House.