A fight is brewing in the Oregon Legislature over a proposal to give farmworkers overtime pay after 40 hours a week.
Democratic supporters say the change is long overdue and that extending overtime pay to a group of essential workers who toil long hours, do difficult work and earn low wages is a matter of equity. But Republican opponents say the bill would slice into farming revenue at a time of lower commodity prices and devastating climate changes and force owners to cut worker hours or sell their operations.
State Representative Vikki Breese-Iverson (R-Prineville), the House minority leader, suggested during a presentation with the media before the session started that Republicans were so strongly opposed to the bill that they might walk out.
House Bill 4002, sponsored by Democratic Representatives Paul Holvey and Andrea Salinas, follows Oregon’s overtime law which requires employers to pay many hourly workers time and a half for more than 40 hours worked a week. The change would be phased in with overtime pay required for more than 55 hours a week in 2023 and 2024, 48 hours a week in 2025 and 2026, and then 40 hours in 2027.
The bill includes tax credits through 2029, allowing employers to deduct 50 percent of overtime pay in 2023 and 2024, 35 percent in 2025 and 2026 and 20 percent in 2027 and 2028.
The proposal received its first legislative hearing earlier this week in an online meeting of the House Business and Labor Committee. More than 50 people have filed testimony in support and against, with proponents saying the issue is about equity and opponents warning the bill could kill Oregon agriculture.
Several Republican lawmakers have issued statements in recent days, urging opponents to speak out at the hearing.
“I can tell you firsthand farm work often cannot be scheduled in eight-hour days and 40-hour work weeks,” wrote Republican Representative Mark Owens, who is an alfalfa farmer. “This is not how agriculture works because it’s not how nature works. Simply put, this bill is out of touch with our agriculture and natural resource communities.”
Last year two similar bills introduced in the House and Senate died in committee. A work group with organizations representing farmers and workers met for months afterwards but failed to reach a compromise, with a farmworkers group taking its case to court against the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries (BOLI).
“Right now, there’s a pretty big gap between the two sides,” said Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, which represents 6,700 farmers.
The suit, filed in the Oregon Court of Appeals in December, coincided with a move by BOLI to change Oregon’s overtime rules to include farmworkers. Supporters of the plan say growers would be better off accepting the current proposal.
“Going this route and getting funding from the state in the form of a refundable tax credit would help farmers get through this transition period and beyond,” said Alice Morrison of Friends of Family Farmers, which represents 1,200 smaller farmers.
She said a recent survey showed that a majority of the group’s membership supports the bill. “This is a chance for us to do the right thing and be part of a solution,” Morrison said.
But a majority in another survey of about 550 members of the farm bureau indicated they wouldn’t survive if the bill passes.
Farmworkers Excluded in 1938
The proposal would apply across the spectrum—to farms, orchards, ranches, dairies, and other animal producers, vineyards, Christmas tree growers and nurseries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oregon has more than 86,000 farmworkers.
They have long been excluded from overtime laws. The federal 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted to protect workers from abusive work environments, established a minimum wage—25 cents at the time—and a 40-hour work week, with overtime pay after that for most nonmanagerial employees. It has a few exceptions. Farmworkers are one of them. Their advocates say it’s time to take action against a racist law that was directed against Black farmworkers in the South in the 1930s.
“A lot of that came from Jim Crow laws,” said Reyna Lopez Osuna, executive director of the farmworkers union, PCUN, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste. “It has a legacy of exclusion and racism.”
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