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Oregon closer to paying overtime to farmworkers

Oregon Democrats hailed the bill as a win for workers, while Republicans said it will punish farmers and kill farmworker jobs.

SALEM, Ore. (CN) — Oregon lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation that would require farms to pay overtime wages to farmworkers, mirroring laws already in place in Washington state and California.

House Democrats championed the bill as a necessary protection for a category of workers who were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. They noted in testimony that farmworkers typically work extremely long hours during extreme weather and endure pesticide exposure. The average life expectancy for farmworkers in the United States is 49 years, according the National Farm Worker Ministry.

“This is about fair pay and equal treatment under the law,” said Representative Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, a chief sponsor of the bill. “Oregon’s farmworkers are essential. Throughout the pandemic, wildfires, and heatwave this summer, they have put their safety and health on the line to make sure our families are fed and we have food in stores. I’m proud that we showed up for them today.” 

Former farmworker Eustolia Dominguez described her experiences during testimony in favor of HB 4002.

“The work is very heavy and requires a lot of patience and wisdom,” Dominguez said. “I have five children whom I had to support by working in the field. There were plenty of situations where I stretched every dollar to make it enough. I really did what I could with what I had, and I always knew that everything was always going to be limited.”

The bill passed 37 to 23 in the House and now heads to the Senate for a vote. If passed, it will be phased in to help farmers plan and adjust. The law would require employers to pay workers time and a half for hours worked beyond the maximum, beginning with a weekly cap of 55 hours in 2023. In 2025, that weekly maximum drops to 48 hours, with a final drop in 2027 to require overtime pay for all hours worked above 40 per week.

“My parents are farmworkers right here in Oregon, and have been underpaid and overworked for over 40 years,” said Representative Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, whose family came to the U.S. from San Jerónimo Purenchécuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. “This bill is about dignity for these working families. Today, my parents and farmworkers across the state finally feel seen and acknowledged for their contributions.”

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have blasted the bill as an attempt to “kill family farms.” Several insisted the law would end up cutting farm jobs and reducing pay.

“There is no doubt we will need to fix this legislation in 2023 to save farm employee jobs,” said Representative Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany. “First we will need more balance in the Legislature and a majority that stands up to partisan special interests. We must put people above politics.”

The law would add tax credits to partially reimburse farms with over 50 full-time employees for overtime wages paid during the first five years after the law takes effect. Republican lawmakers wanted to instead set up a $50 million grant that farms could use to pay overtime wages. Democrats shot that proposal down.

“This legislation is a loss for Oregon,” said House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville. “We had an opportunity to find an Oregon solution that caters to our state’s diverse agriculture industry, protecting both farm employees and farm owners. Instead the majority’s failed leadership passed a bill that will cut employee hours and wages while expediting the automation of farm work.”

But for Eustolia Dominguez, the former farmworker, the law is about fair pay for skilled labor.

“Farmworkers need more support and their labor contribution should be recognized and honored,” Dominguez said.

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