Two months after the state Supreme Court issued a confusing ruling that could have disastrous consequences for dairy farms, Sen. Curtis King has introduced a bill to head off what could be a financially devastating problem for the state’s dairy industry and other segments of Washington’s economy.
For 60 years, state law exempted the agriculture industry from paying overtime wages after 40 hours per week. However, the Supreme Court last November declared that law to be unconstitutional. The majority’s opinion was silent on whether overturning the law also meant up to three years of retroactivity on wages would apply. Since then, dairy farmers and other agricultural employers have worried that they could be forced to pay their employers with retroactive overtime going back three years.
Under Senate Bill 5172, an employer who followed the overtime-exemption law up until it was overturned cannot be assessed damages under the state’s wage and hour laws for three years of retroactive compensation.
“It is very unfair to target an industry and employers who have acted legally over the years,” said King, ranking Republican on the Senate Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee. “The Legislature needs to shield farmers from being penalized, forced into bankruptcy and put at risk of losing their farms, simply because they had followed the law. The Legislature, not the courts, should be setting policy on this issue.”
SB 5172 will receive a public hearing at 8 a.m. Thursday in the Senate Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee.
In its November ruling, the Supreme Court sent the question of retroactivity back to Yakima County Superior Court for a decision. Since the high court’s decision, attorneys already have filed nearly 25 class-action lawsuits, said King.
“Most of these lawsuits target dairy farms. The gist of these lawsuits is that since the overtime exemption for dairy and other agricultural workers was tossed out, these employees have the right to claim wages going back three years,” added King, R-Yakima.
Those seeking retroactive overtime for employees likely won’t just stop with agriculture, noted the 14th District legislator.
“They probably will also target other parts of our state’s economy, including real estate agents, railroad workers, salespeople and other employees who often work overtime. That’s why my bill goes beyond our agricultural sector,” said King.