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Overtime for farmworkers is an issue of fairness

On Tuesday, the Oregon House passed one of the most contentious bills this session and sent it to the Senate. The measure would require farm employers to pay farmworkers overtime for more than 40 hours in a week, the same as other workers. Today, the Senate is scheduled to hear a third reading of the bill. Senators should pass it as well.

Despite the objections of farm employers, treating farmworkers like other workers is simply the right thing to do. And HB 4002 contains generous tax credits to ease the impact on farm finances.

Congress exempted farm labor from overtime rules in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Supporters of HB 4002 say that was baaed in racism, because, Southern lawmakers wanted Black farmworkers treated differently.

In any case, farmworkers have remained exempt from federal overtime rules ever since. Seven states, including California and Washington, have ended that exemption and now require overtime pay for farmworkers. Oregon would become the eighth.

Under the bill passed by the House this week, the threshold for overtime pay would start at 55 hours per week and drop each year until reaching 40 hours in 2027.

Meanwhile, farms employing 25 or fewer workers would receive tax credits equal to 90% of overtime paid in 2023, 80% in 2024 and 2025 and 60% in 2026 through 2028. Larger farms would receive credits starting at 60% to 75%, depending on the number of workers.

Small dairies (employing 25 or fewer workers) would receive a permanent 100% tax credit, because they require round-the-clock animal care. Larger dairies would qualify for credits ranging from 75% in the first year to 50% in 2028.

Farmers have objected to the legislation, claiming it would put them out of business. If paying fair wages is not a sustainable business model, then consumers may have to get used to paying more for fruits and vegetables.

Moreover, if Oregon farms cannot stay in business and pay overtime, how is it that produce departments here are routinely stocked with fruits and vegetables grown in California and Washington, which already require overtime pay?

The reality is, if this bill with its phased-in schedule and generous tax credits does not pass, lawsuits are likely to decide the matter in favor of overtime pay on constitutional grounds, but without any assistance to employers. Farmers are better off accepting the Legislature’s concessions.