Workers in onion field
A bill requiring overtime pay for farmworkers advanced in the Legislature on Thursday. (Photo by Malheur Enterprise)

Tens of thousands of farmworkers in Oregon have moved one step closer to getting overtime pay.

A legislative committee voted along party lines late Thursday to pass House Bill 4002, one of the most divisive proposals in the 2022 Legislature, with Republicans indicating that they could walk out over it. The bill would guarantee that an estimated 86,000 farmworkers in Oregon are paid time and a half after 40 hours a week while providing farmers tax credits over six years to cover the new cost. The six Democrats on the Joint Farmworker Overtime Committee backed the proposal while the four Republicans on the committee opposed it, including three who said they were an “absolute no.”

The bill goes to the House for a vote.

The decision came after nearly three hours of testimony in a public hearing which was followed by two other meetings of the same committee, stretching past 9:30 p.m. 

Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, asked that the meeting be carried over but Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, who co-chaired the meeting, said it was clear there would be no agreement between Democrats who want the 40-hour threshold and Republicans who don’t.

“We’ve been negotiating this for some time,” Holvey said. “The proposals on the other side would never get to 40.”

He said it was likely that the issue would emerge in future legislative sessions and that changes would be made based on how an overtime requirement affected farms and farmworkers.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that will happen,” Holvey said. “We all want the best thing for people.”

During the public hearing, lawmakers heard heart-felt testimony from farmers, farmworkers, union representatives, advocates, trade groups, educators and health care professionals. Like the first public hearing on the bill Feb. 8, opinions were closely divided, with speakers repeating many of the same arguments.

Many farmers – and the powerful Oregon Farm Bureau – said the proposal will put family farms out of business or force them to sell to corporations.  

“Our farms are at the breaking point,” Mary Anne Cooper, Farm Bureau vice president of government affairs, said. “This will push them over the edge and into out-of-state corporate hands.”

Opponents argued that farming should not be lumped with other industries because of the seasonal nature of the work, the effect of wild variations in the weather that impacts income and the long hours required at harvest.

Supporters, including a few farmers along with farmworkers and their advocates, rejected that argument. They said the proposal was long overdue and that granting overtime after 40 hours to farmworkers was equitable. They have been excluded from overtime since the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act passed. 

“This exclusion was about race,” said Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego. “Excluding farmworks from overtime pay was wrong in 1938, and it is still wrong today.”

She said that farm work was back breaking and that the long hours cause physical and mental stress, giving farmworkers much shorter lives than other Americans.

A 1998 study in California said the average lifespan of a farmworker was 49 years. That compares with 77 years for the average American, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dozens of people testified

Several farmworkers speaking in Spanish were among the dozens who testified on Thursday. Hundreds more filed written testimony. They included some who took part in talks last year. Those negotiations broke up in December, with a farmworker advocacy group filing a lawsuit against the state Bureau of Labor and Industries on behalf of two farmworkers who said they were owed overtime under the Oregon Constitution. That lawsuit is pending.

Since the session started, the two sides have moved closer together. 

Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, filed a new proposal Thursday requiring overtime pay for farmworkers after 48 hours a week. The overtime threshold would have been extended to 55 hours during 15 weeks of the year. The proposal would have required the state to set up a $50 million fund to pay any overtime that the employer didn’t pay.

“This bill would provide some certainty for our farmers,” said Bonham, the Republican representative from The Dalles. “It is a compromise and will keep people employed and will allow for some greater pay.”

He said the Republican plan would put more money into the hands of farmworkers.

It was voted down on party lines.

The proposal that was adopted would set a 40-hour threshold for overtime pay to be phased in over five years. It includes provisions to cushion the financial blow to employers. A $10 million fund set up by Sept. 30 would be used to pay employers, and they’d also get tax credits that would be phased out over six years. The proposal includes four tiers of credits.

Employers except for dairies with more than 50 full-time employees could claim a tax credit equal to 60% of overtime paid in 2023 and 2024, 45% in 2025, 30% in 2026 and 15% in 2027 and 2028.

Employers that employ between 26 and 50 full-time employees or dairy operations that have more than 25 employees would also get tax credits on overtime pay: 75% in 2023, 60% in 2024 and 2025, 50% in 2026, 2027 and 2028.

Farms, excluding dairies, that have fewer than 25 full-time employees would get a 90% tax credit in 2023, 80% in 2024 and 2025 and 60% from 2026 through 2028.

The legislation would provide dairies with 25 or fewer part-time employees a full tax credit for overtime wages for six years. 

The bill estimates the tax credits would cost taxpayers about $55 million a year.

The proposal also would require the Employment Department to report to the Legislature in 2026 on the impact of the overtime requirement.

If the proposal passes this session, opponents would have little recourse to fight it. But if it is not approved, the overtime issue could be settled through the pending lawsuit or the Bureau of Labor and Industries, an option the Farm Bureau prefers. 

“Let BOLI and the courts determine what’s in Oregon’s interest,” said Cooper, the Farm Bureau lobbyist. She said the bureau would fight a 40-hour overtime rule by BOLI in the courts.

Mano a Mano, a Salem farmworker advocacy group, maintains in its suit against the state labor bureau that not paying farmworkers overtime after 40 hours is discriminatory. 

Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle separately has moved to impose the overtime requirement by executive action, and supporters of the legislation noted her decision to do so wouldn’t come with tax credits.

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Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.