Yakima County Superior Court has granted approval for a $1 million settlement that provides retroactive overtime pay for workers at a Lower Yakima Valley dairy.
The settlement wraps up a class-action lawsuit filed in 2016 by Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar on behalf of nearly 300 workers of DeRuyter Brothers Dairy of Outlook.
Martinez-Cuevas and Aguilar alleged that they worked nine to 12 hours a day, six hours a week without rest breaks, meal pay or overtime pay.
Most of the wage claims were resolved in a $600,000 settlement approved by the court in 2017. That settlement left unresolved a challenge to state law that exempted workers from overtime pay.
The case eventually went before the Washington state Supreme Court, which ruled in the fall that the overtime exemption for the dairy workers was unconstitutional. However, the question of whether the DeRuyter workers were entitled to retroactive overtime pay went back to Yakima County Superior Court.
The case was set for a hearing, but a settlement was reached, said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, which represented the workers.
“We were quite confident we would win,” Schmitt said. “The settlement reflects that. The settlement is pretty good.”
Former owners Jacobus and Geneva DeRuyter have sold the dairy but will fulfill the settlement terms.
John Ray Nelson, a Spokane attorney representing the DeRuyter family, said in an interview Monday that the original complaint challenged state law regarding overtime, but doesn’t allege that DeRuyter violated the overtime law as written at the time.
“They came to the point where the DeRuyters wanted to get on with their life,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they could count on justice prevailing from the initial Washington Supreme Court decision.”
Under the settlement, $515,000 will be paid to those who worked for the dairy between Dec. 8, 2013, and May 25, 2017. The amount received would be based on the amount of time worked. Schmitt said the payments would range from $65.65 to $18,473.23, with the median payment at $690.12. Martinez-Cuevas and Aguilar will receive an additional $7,500 service award as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The remainder of the settlement will cover attorneys’ fees and costs and a reserve fund for any additional taxes or expenses.
The Washington Supreme Court ruling on the case did not address whether the overtime exemption should end for all agriculture workers. As a result, legislators, farmworker advocates and agricultural industry officials ended up negotiating a bill that would remove the overtime exemption for all agricultural workers. The bill passed the state House and Senate with bipartisan support. Under the new law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May, agriculture workers will start receiving overtime pay on Jan. 1, and the threshold for overtime pay will be lowered to 40 hours by 2024.
The bill also preempted lawsuits for back pay filed after the Washington Supreme Court decision, so other growers won’t be required to pay retroactive wages.
Schmitt noted that final approval of the settlement came weeks before Juneteenth, which is now a federal holiday. Juneteenth marks the announcement made on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, that all slaves were free under the Emancipation Proclamation.
Schmitt noted that the overtime exemption in Washington state was based on a federal labor law aimed at Black agricultural and domestic workers.
“It’s a clear example of how people could not be acting in a racist way themselves and be perpetuating these systems,” she said.
Schmitt said the growing national conversation in the last year about systemic racism and agricultural workers during the COVID-19 pandemic likely wouldn’t have changed the legal outcome, but it made it easier to talk about those issues, including in legal briefings.
“Between 2016 and now, the way we are thinking about racism in our laws and society is significantly different,” she said. “This case, in some ways, evolved with those conversations.”