An irrigation system in an agricultural field off of 76th Avenue Northeast. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Much of the work at Blue Heron Farm happens in bursts. 

Willy Dinsdale, co-owner of the farm located just outside Salem, described how on days when the spring rains let up, crews will venture into the fields to plant Christmas trees. 

A 150 horsepower tractor pulls a tree transplanter that will insert the seedlings into the soil, he said. Three workers for each row walk behind the machine to make sure that the trees don’t go in at a bad angle. With a narrow window to get the trees planted, he said crews work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a half-hour lunch and breaks. 

He’s now preparing for another narrow window to plant 70 acres of strawberries that’ll also involve long work days.  

Dinsdale is now worried about a bill advancing in the Oregon Legislature that, if passed, he said would cause him to drastically rethink what crops he plants and the hours his employees work. He said he “panicked” when he first heard about it. 

Currently, employers do not have to pay agricultural workers extra if they work over 40 hours a week. House Bill 2358 would subject agricultural employers including farms, ranches and dairies to overtime requirements. If passed, the bill would require these employers to pay workers time and a half for working over 40 hours. 

The bill is sponsored by several Democrats from the Portland area as well as state Rep. Teresa Alonso León, D-Woodburn. It’s part of a broader push by Democrats, who hold commanding majorities in both chambers, to boost worker protections and pay this session. 

Proponents of the bill say it’s unfair to exclude agricultural workers, who do physically demanding labor, from overtime when other industries are required to pay extra for long work weeks. But critics say the proposal would put farms out of business or result in reduced hours for workers as farms turn to less labor intensive crops. 

“The commodity game is about who can do it the cheapest,” said Dinsdale. “To tack on the overtime, that will threaten the viability of a lot of operations.” 

Agricultural employers have long been exempt from overtime requirements under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Farmworker advocates argue that the Depression-era law deliberately excluded agricultural laborers because they were more likely to be Black or Latino. Six states, including California and Washington, require at least some agricultural workers to be paid overtime.  

“Farmworkers are not second-class workers,” Reyna Lopez, the executive director of farmworkers union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, told the Oregon House Committee on Business and Labor earlier this month. “They do not belong to a lower class of workers.”

Considered “essential,” farmworkers have had to work through the pandemic, wildfires and winter storms, she said. They deserve the same overtime pay that workers in other industries receive, she said. 

Speaking through an interpreter, farmworker Minerva Vasquez told the committee that she has a difficult job working up to 10 or 12 hours a day that puts food on people’s tables and helps the economy. 

“Meanwhile, we're trying to cover our basic needs with very few resources and limitations for our future,” she said.  

Several farmworkers from Woodburn submitted testimony in support of the bill and how extra money would help them make ends meet. 

Requiring agricultural employers to pay overtime could significantly affect Marion County, which has 2,761 of the state’s 37,616 farms, according to the most recent federal Census of Agriculture. 

Marion County produced the highest market value of agricultural products sold of any county in the state at $701.5 million, according to the Census

In Oregon, the median hourly wage for nonmanagerial farmworkers is $14.59 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In testimony submitted to the Oregon House Committee on Business and Labor, farmers said that they are “price takers,” meaning they are unable to increase the price of their commodities. 

A survey conducted on behalf of farm groups of 544 agricultural employers found that 91% would not be able to absorb the new costs of the bill. Over half said they would reduce hours or switch crops. The Oregon Farm Bureau said it would penalize workers who want to work the hours and employers who rely on them. 

Dinsdale said that he couldn’t make his farm finances pencil if he has to pay overtime on the 20 to 30 hours of overtime to his workers, which peaks to 60 during the summer. He said he’d likely have to switch to growing grass seed of hazelnuts, which require less labor. 

“It would be great for farmworkers to make more money,” Dinsdale “Everyone should make more money. But the reality we are living in we are growing commodities, and as commodity growers, we really have no power to set the price of what we are growing.” 

The bill is scheduled for a second hearing next week.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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