When considering policy measures on behalf of impacted communities, it is best to hear directly from members of that community rather than speaking for them.
As discussions unfold in Olympia regarding a bill that could impact the future of small to mid-size family farms across Washington, plenty of rhetoric has been offered. But, as a first-generation Latina farmer from Tonasket, the stakes of these policy discussions go far beyond rhetorical. They carry very real — and very alarming — risks for my family and the thousands of families that depend on a healthy Washington agricultural industry.
I hold a unique perspective, informed from personal experience on both sides of the discussion. My parents immigrated to this county from Mexico as farmworkers. My siblings and I worked on farms growing up, in the very jobs that will be risked if the Legislature makes the wrong decision this session. I’m now fortunate to be a small-farm owner yet still work side-by-side with my employees in our orchards. Operations like mine depend on our workforce. We are a tight-knit familial community. We celebrate holidays and birthdays together. We watch our children grow up in the orchards, as we did, and offer scholarships to help educate the next generation.
The issue in question centers on requiring farm owners to pay three years of retroactive overtime wages. After a recent state Supreme Court decision eliminated a statute exempting dairy workers from overtime wages, farmers across the state began facing lawsuits for costly overtime back-pay claims. As these wage laws change, farmers across Washington stand ready to adapt to these requirements and will continue to follow the law. Thankfully, the state Senate recently passed Senate Bill 5172 with a “safe-harbor” provision, protecting farmers against these back-pay claims. However, the bill did not address overtime policies for seasonal and harvest workers.
As this bill moves forward, we urge members of the House — as the state Senate rightly did — to consider the unintended consequences these changing pay laws would bring to Washington farms.
In many ways, the Supreme Court’s overtime ruling impacts are already taking effect, with labor hours being reduced on farms that cannot keep up. In 2020, Washington agriculture employers paid an average of $16.34 per hour, according to a U.S. Department of Labor wage survey, more than any other state. Many farmworkers earn at or above the average income of Washington residents. As small to mid-size farms struggle to survive the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, labor continues to be our highest cost.
Imposing an unforeseen and enormously expensive overtime back-pay bill would be devastating. My farm would not survive, and many other minority-owned or upstart farms would share that same fate.
Advocates of these sweeping retroactive awards will justifiably point to the farmworker’s historical experience to warrant their ends. Well, I understand this story more than most. Given the realities I continue to face as a woman who worked her way from picking apples in the orchard to owning and operating her own farm, any broad, sweeping back-pay decision would do more harm than good on my farm, and so many small to mid-size farms like it. Not coincidentally, these are often the operations that form the strongest bonds with the employees.
Putting my name on an Op-Ed to The Seattle Times is an unusual experience for me. I am typically occupied with operating my farm, growing apples, cherries and pears, which provides an honest living for my hardworking team. But I have recently found myself defending my livelihood and that of many farmworkers in my community.
As I speak up, I strongly urge members of the House to preserve the safe-harbor provision included in the Senate version of SB 5172. This solution honors and protects farming operations like mine, allowing us and our farmworkers to continue making a respectable living while providing food for our communities.