Agriculture, Oregon, Salem

Farmworkers plead for overtime pay as ag industry warns of harmful impacts

Emotional and passionate testimony stretched into the night Tuesday during a legislative hearing on a proposal to require overtime pay for Oregon’s farmworkers.

Legislation put forward by two Democratic lawmakers would pay farmworkers time and a half after working 40 hours a week and would include tax credits for companies to help them adjust. Overtime pay would be phased in over five years, with the tax credits extending a year longer. Farmers who’ve been on their land for generations said House Bill 4002 would not be good for Oregon agriculture and could cause farms to fold, with large out-of-state companies swooping in to buy them.

Farmworkers speaking in Spanish who’ve worked in fields for decades said they toil long hours, sometimes in harsh weather, and deserve the same overtime guarantee that most other workers enjoy.

It’s a matter of justice, supporters said.

It’s a matter of economics, opponents insisted.

“Farmers and farmworkers have a lot at stake here,” said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, and a chief sponsor of the bill. “I hope we can come to a legislative solution but we’re in a difficult spot.”

Holvey is chair of the House Business and Labor Committee, which heard the testimony on Tuesday night. The public hearing started just after 5:30 p.m. and ended just after 9 p.m. Nearly 50 people spoke, including lawyers, union activists, educators and advocates.

The testimony was carefully orchestrated, with opinions closely split for or against.

Hundreds more have filed written testimony.

The committee is scheduled to vote on the bill on Monday.

The hearing drove home heartfelt positions.

“Many farmers stand to lose everything in this fight,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, her voice breaking up. A Republican who represents Albany, Millersburg and Tangent and is on the Business and Labor Committee, Boshart Davis works on her family’s farm and runs a trucking company that transports straw bales.

She filed an alternative plan that would require owners to pay overtime after 50 hours a week in 2025 but would raise that to 60 hours for 22 weeks a year. But farmworkers – and some farm owners – oppose that.

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One farmworker, whose testimony was read by Elizabeth Strater of United Farm Workers, a California-based union, said he works through snow and heat waves, becoming so exhausted that he feels nauseous.

“We come to work every day to feed our families but also to keep other people fed,” he said. “Without this protection, we sacrifice our health.”

Another farmworker, who spoke in Spanish, said farmworkers often live paycheck to paycheck.

“We often get sick during the harvest and we have to sacrifice time with our families to get up at three in the morning to travel up to two hours on the road,” he said. “A lot of the time it feels like we’re a tool for employers. We are the foundation of this country. Without farmworkers there’s no food.”

Farmers who testified repeatedly said they care about workers and treat them fairly. But Bridget Cooke, co-founder and executive director of Adelante Mujeres, a nonprofit that supports Latin women in Forest Grove, said if farmers want to care for their workers, they need to pay a fair wage.

“Without fair wages the relationship is exploitative,” Cooke testified. “Excluding farmworkers for overtime pay is heartless. We need to change the system.”

But doing so would upend Oregon agriculture, opponents warned.

Kyle Fessler, who spoke on behalf of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, a 700-member organization, said that the bill would hurt farmworkers and farm owners who would limit worker hours to avoid paying overtime.

“We see this as a false promise to farmworkers,” Fessler said.

He cited California as an example. The state has phased in an overtime law for farmworkers with a 40-hour threshold going into effect this year.

“We’re seeing a mass influx of workers from California that would typically stay down there later in the spring that are leaving and coming to Oregon because they can’t get the hours and they can’t get the income that they need working in California with the 40-hour cap,” Fessler said.

He called on lawmakers to adopt a proposal that’s good for farms and farmworkers like the one by Boshard Davis.

“The 40-hour threshold is not something that is survivable in the state of Oregon,” Fessler said.

California was cited as an example by several people, including Gordon Lafer, professor and co-director of the Labor Education & Research Center at the University of Oregon. He said predictions that California’s law, passed in 2016, would reduce farmers’ incomes, cut farm production and harm the state’s economy have not played out.

“In reality, none of these predictions have come true,” Lafer said. “Agricultural employment in the years following this law is higher than the years preceding it.”

He blasted the Oregon Farm Bureau, which he said warned in 2016 when the minimum wage was raised that “many family farms and ranches will have difficulty staying in business.”

Instead, he said, the number of farms has grown.

“There’s no economic reason to oppose the idea that farmworkers should enjoy the same overtime protections as workers in other industries,” Lafer said. But Mike McCarthy, who grows pears, apples and cherries in Hood River and has a doctorate in agriculture, said Oregon is not comparable to California.

“California is the origin of mega farming,” McCarthy said. “We have family farms in Oregon so any comments he had about the effects of overtime in California is totally unrelated to what would happen here.”

Like other farmers, he said he’s strapped by international prices.

A few farmers supported overtime pay, including Ben Verhoeven of Peoria Gardens in Albany.

“Our market has proven it can bear the cost of compensating its workforce while still keeping farms like ours healthy and profitable,” Verhoeven said. “It all comes down to balancing costs with fairness.”

Holvey, the committee chair, who thanked both sides for testifying, has proposed a modification to the proposal. His plan would offer more generous tax credits, starting at 75% of overtime wages for farms with 25 employees or fewer employees. Bigger farms would get a 60% credit. The original proposal gave all farms a 50% credit first year. The credits would end after six years under both proposals.

Some people, including Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, expressed concerns about the cost of the tax credits to taxpayers. The House bill caps the credits at $27 million a year.

“My concern is that this will become a permanent source of funding,” Smith Warner said.

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

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