The vast majority of U.S. states don’t require farms to pay overtime.
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Agricultural workers earn notoriously low pay—with farms often taking advantage of government exemptions to avoid minimum wage and overtime rules. In Washington, however, the State Supreme Court has decided to end one of these loopholes.

Yesterday, justices ruled 5 to 4 that farmworkers in the state should receive overtime pay, deciding that the previous exemption violated Washington’s law protecting workers in hazardous conditions, according to the Capital Press. The agricultural newspaper reports that Washington becomes only the second state in the U.S. to supersede the federal exemption and mandate time-and-a-half pay for work beyond a 40-hour workweek. California is apparently planning to phase in similar regulations by 2025. Meanwhile, New York, Maryland, and Minnesota reportedly also offer overtime protections, but to a lesser degree.

United States: Truck farming in California
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"Farmworkers remain some of the most impoverished and socially excluded members of our society,” Justice Steven Gonzalez wrote in his opinion, which referred to farm work as a “caste system” and also advocated for farmworkers in the state to be able to sue for back overtime pay for the past three years. “It is no coincidence the law continues to disfavor them.”

Lori Isley, an attorney with the nonprofit Columbia Legal Services, argued the case for the plaintiffs, former milkers Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar, on behalf of about 300 workers from DeRuyter Brothers Dairy—a facility that reportedly kept employees working until all cows were milked. “It is just a great victory for our dairy workers here in the state of Washington,” Isley was quoted as saying.

Despite this case specifically looking at dairy workers, the Associated Press reported that the ruling is expected to apply to the state’s entire agriculture industry since all farm jobs could be seen as hazardous work. The AP states that Washington’s $10.6 billion agriculture industry employs over 200,000 farmworkers, 99 percent of which are Latino. “Since 1983, the Washington Supreme Court has recognized that all farm work is very dangerous work, so it's very easy to see how this will extend to all farmworkers,” Isley added. “We are so happy to see the law in our state moving forward in this direction.”

Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, groups like the Washington Farm Bureau and the Washington State Dairy Federation lamented the decision. “Everybody is reeling,” Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller told the Capital Press. “This is just painful all the way around.” The ruling is expected to be most financially detrimental to farm owners during peak harvest times when labor shortages will potentially prevent farms from hiring more workers to offset the need to make current employees work into overtime hours.