Two Oregon farmworkers and a Salem-based nonprofit filed a petition with the Oregon Court of Appeals on Tuesday challenging the validity of state regulations that exclude agricultural workers from overtime pay.
Farmworkers Javier Ceja and Anita Santiago and nonprofit organization Mano a Mano contend in the petition that the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has no statutory authority to exclude farmworkers from overtime pay and claim that the regulations were adopted without consideration of the health and wellbeing of agricultural workers.
The petition contends that Oregon law hasn’t had a categorical exemption preventing the labor bureau from making rules to limit hours of work and require overtime pay for agricultural workers since 2017 and that the bureau’s current rules are a product of an outdated statute. It also contends that the state agency failed to evaluate whether overtime pay was necessary to the health and wellbeing of farmworkers in adopting its rules.
The petition asks the court to declare the regulations unlawful.
Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle said Tuesday night that she has always supported overtime pay for farmworkers, but it wasn’t until recently that the bureau was informed that a change in Oregon law had given it more authority over setting agricultural overtime requirements.
Hoyle said the bureau had been in the process of working with farmers and workers to enact changes to the overtime rules and that she believes the lawsuit could delay those efforts.
“Unfortunately, this lawsuit will halt that work and will delay our ability to get farmworkers their overtime wages,” Hoyle said in an emailed statement. “The legal filing makes it so that we are precluded from communication with stakeholders and now all communications must be handled through the Department of Justice.”
Ceja said in the petition that he has worked in the Oregon agriculture industry for 40 years and has often been asked to work 11 or 12 hours per day without overtime pay. Now in his 70s, Ceja said the years of working long hours without financial security have impacted his health and he now deals with high blood pressure and stomach issues.
“Is it fair for farmworkers to not be paid time and half for our challenging work?” Ceja said in a statement provided by his lawyers at the Oregon Law Center. “I dream that I can see the day that farmworkers are not treated differently from other workers because they are farmworkers.”
Petitions requesting judicial review of administrative rules are common.
While the majority of hourly employees in the United States receive time-and-a-half pay for the hours they work beyond 40 hours a week, farmworkers were intentionally excluded from that mandate back when the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938.
In recent years, however, a handful of states have extended overtime protections to farmworkers.
California, New York, Minnesota, Hawaii and Maryland all require overtime pay for farmworkers in certain situations.
Washington also enacted legislation in May to provide overtime pay to agricultural workers beginning in 2022.
The bill came after the state Supreme Court ruled in November 2020 that dairy workers should be granted overtime pay. That decision did not apply to other agricultural workers, which prompted lawmakers in Washington to take up legislation to extend overtime protections to all farmworkers.
Tuesday’s petition comes as some Democrats in the Oregon legislature are pushing to provide overtime pay to agricultural workers.
An Oregon House bill introduced last January that would have required employers to pay farmworkers overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a week failed to make it out of committee.
That bill faced strong opposition from farmers, who said they operate on thin profit margins and that the requirement could threaten Oregon’s agriculture industry. However, advocates have said that overtime pay for farmworkers is long overdue and a matter of racial justice and equity.
Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, recently said she plans to reintroduce a version of the bill in the 2022 legislative session.