The Washington Supreme Court ruled that dairy farmworkers are entitled to overtime pay — a decision that collapses a loophole in labor law that excluded farmworkers.
The 5-4 decision found that dairy workers had extremely dangerous jobs — work made even more dangerous by long hours — and were therefore covered under the existing Minimum Wage Act, which “is to protect the health and safety of Washington workers,” the justices wrote.
The Minimum Wage Act exemption for farm workers violates the state constitution’s promise of equality under the law, wrote Justice Steven Gonzalez in his concurring opinion.
Farmworkers work long hours in arduous jobs and are exposed to extreme elements to put food on the tables of their families and those of others, risking infection, chemical injuries, cancer and chronic musculoskeletal problems, Gonzalez continued.
“Yet, since the 1930s, lawmakers have systematically excluded them from health and safety protections, included overtime pay, afforded to workers in other dangerous industries,” Gonzalez wrote.
In her dissent, Chief Justice Debra Stephens argued that “entitlement to overtime pay is not a fundamental right implicating our state privileges and immunity clause.”
“Nor does the legilsative policy decision to exempt agricultural workers ... from overtime protections evidence discrimination in violation of the equal protection clause,” Stephens wrote.
The ruling is a win not just for the dairy workers, but potentially for farm workers throughout the state, said Lori Isley, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, who handled the case.
“The premise of this decision is rooted in the constitutional protection for all workers in dangerous jobs,” Isley said, noting that how the decision plays out will be hard to predict.
In a post on its website, the Washington State Dairy Federation called the ruling “disappointing,” but noted that there was no avenue for appeal.
“Our advice is for dairy farmers to begin paying workers time-and-a-half for overtime immediately,” the Federation wrote.
That is good news for Jose Martinez-Cuevas, one of two named plaintiffs in the case. Martinez-Cuevas was one of the workers who would use mechanized equipment to milk nearly 3,000 cows per shift. Workers cycled through three shifts each day, every day of the week.
In an interview with Real Change, Martinez-Cuevas described walking with cows in the dark hours, risking a twisted ankle in the pitch black.
“It’s very dangerous,” Martinez-Cuevas said, in Spanish. “The ground is very soft and there are holes.”
The question of overtime was part of a class action lawsuit in which workers alleged that DeRuyter Brothers Dairy of Outlook, Washington, hadn’t paid them for 10-minute rest breaks and 30-minute meal breaks, as required under state law. The plaintiffs’ attorneys also argued that the court should grant workers overtime pay, despite the farm worker exemption built into the Minimum Wage Act.
A Yakima Valley Superior Court judge approved a $600,000 settlement with the 281 workers that covered many of the unpaid time arguments, but the decision didn’t tackle the matter of overtime pay. That issue went to the state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case in October 2019.
More than a year later, it will fall to the Yakima Superior Court to decide if dairy workers should receive the overtime wages they would have accrued over three years of work at the dairy, Isley said.
“A year is a little on the long side, but issues vary, and if you look at it there are multiple opinions,” Isley said.
Isley’s argument before the court had two main prongs based on the state constitution. The first says that the state legislature has a duty to protect the health and safety of workers who do dangerous jobs. The second focused on the different treatment of farm workers compared to other kinds of employment.
That difference in treatment originated from the Federal Labor Standards Act, a law dating back to the New Deal. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a slew of laws meant to drag the U.S. out of the Great Depression.
Roosevelt meant for the FLSA to apply to all workers equally, but pressure from southern Democrats led to the exclusion of farmworkers and, implicitly, domestic workers — labor predominately done by Black people, according to a 2011 article by Juan E. Perea of Loyola University Chicago.
Counsel for the Washington Farm Bureau and Washington State Dairy Federation said farm labor had been recognized as distinct from other kinds of work and shouldn’t be held to the same standards under law.
Washington state farms produce $1.28 billion in milk each year, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Farmers’ profits have been hit by declining milk prices and the coronavirus pandemic, which decreased demand for milk products like cheese as restaurants and schools shut down to stem the spread of the virus.
The decision is a matter of justice and proves that when you fight, you can gain something, Martinez-Cuevas said.
“This is why we do what we do,” he said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more of the Nov. 18-24, 2020 issue.