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Oregon farmers: Paid leave law is unclear

SALEM — Many farmers in Oregon still have questions about new rules that will require them to provide employees with paid sick leave starting Jan. 1.

Lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year requiring employers with 10 or more workers to offer the paid sick leave, reported The Capital Press. But farmers aren't sure how that will work with piece-rate workers, like fruit pickers, who are compensated based on the amount they harvest, according to the Oregon Farm Bureau.

The state's Bureau of Labor and Industries said piece-rate workers should be compensated at "the regular rate of pay" or, if no such rate was set, at minimum wage. The problem is that the regulations don't explain how to calculate the "regular rate of pay," according to OFB public policy director Jenny Dresler.

"We needed a clarification and we didn't get it," Dresler said. "We just don't know."

Would the number be based on the weekly average of the employee's piece-rate earnings? Or the rate earned by other workers who are harvesting crops while the employee is sick?

The labor bureau says it won't penalize employers while they are still learning the new rules, but Dresler pointed out that that doesn't stop individual workers from suing the employers.

Labor bureau spokesman Charlie Burr said the agency will offer a series of low-cost seminars about paid sick leave.

Tim Bernasek, an attorney specializing in agricultural and labor issues, says he doesn't "have a very good answer about how to practically implement this rule." But Bernasek said he expects the labor bureau to help farmers figure it out.

He said legal aid organizations with attorneys devoted to farmworker protection will probably also be able to help.

"I would encourage ag employers to roll up their sleeves and make their best effort to make this work," said Bernasek.

There is also some confusion about the labor bureau's decision to consider farmers and labor contractors "joint employers" under the law.

Burr said the joint liability provisions are guided by federal labor law.