Judge halts farmworker overtime appeal until new state law takes effect

An irrigation system in an agricultural field off of 76th Avenue Northeast on Friday, March 12, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A recent legal challenge to state rules excluding agricultural workers from getting overtime pay is paused until June 2, the date a farmworker overtime bill would go into effect if signed by Gov. Kate Brown.

An Oregon Court of Appeals judge paused the proceedings on March 10, six days after Oregon legislators passed House Bill 4002 during the 2022 session.

The law would require employers to pay agricultural workers one and a half times their hourly pay when they work overtime, gradually phasing down the number of work hours needed for overtime pay to 40 by 2027. Until then, it would require more than 55 hours per workweek for 2023-24, and 48 hours for 2025-26.

State Bureau of Labor and Industries rules require most employers in Oregon to pay non-manager employees one and a half times their hourly pay when they work more than 40 hours per week, but most agricultural workers are exempt from those rules.

The Oregon Law Center filed a petition Nov. 30 against BOLI, challenging the exemption on behalf of Oregon farmworkers Javier Ceja and Anita Santiago and Salem nonprofit Mano a Mano Family Center.  They are seeking a judge’s review of state rules excluding farmworkers from overtime pay and a determination that they are invalid.

BOLI and its commissioner Val Hoyle on March 7 requested a judge’s order stopping court proceedings in the case until June 2, according to a motion filed in state appeals court.

State officials said they believe the legal challenge will become irrelevant after that date, when the proposed bill would go into effect.

“The governor is expected to sign the legislation,” an attorney for BOLI wrote in the motion, which Chief Judge Erin Lagesen granted.

Liz Merah, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said in an email Tuesday, “Governor Brown believes that we must strike a balance between supporting our hardworking farmworkers — many of whom are migrant workers from low-income families — and our agricultural sector. HB 4002 attempts to strike this balance, and the Governor appreciates the input so many Oregonians have provided on this bill.”

She did not directly answer a question about whether the governor intends to sign the bill.

Levi Herrera-Lopez, executive director for Mano a Mano, declined to provide a comment on the pause. “We are still considering all our options with our attorneys,” he said in a text.

Lageson’s order came also came just over a week after the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation joined the case as a respondent. The organization represents around 6,700 farmers, according to a motion to intervene filed Feb. 22.

Executive Vice President Dave Dillon wrote in a supporting declaration that mandated agricultural overtime would significantly impact the state’s economy, particularly agriculture, because farmers and ranchers can’t afford to pay overtime.

“An inflexible 40 hour per workweek overtime rule simply does not work for agriculture and will have unintended consequences for employees and employers,” he wrote in the declaration.

Dillon did not respond to a request for comment on the decision to join the litigation.

Oregon has around 86,000 agricultural workers, more than 13,000 of whom are in Marion County, according to a 2018 state report. The vast majority are Hispanic.

The 2022 legislative victory for farmworker groups comes after an unsuccessful effort to pass a similar overtime bill during the 2021 legislative session.

The Washington Legislature recently passed law that will drop the number of weekly hours farmworkers are required to work for overtime pay over the next three years.

 Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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