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State Overtime Exemption for Agricultural Workers Deemed Unconstitutional

The Washington State Supreme Court found unconstitutional a provision exempting agricultural workers from the overtime pay requirement set out in the Washington Minimum Wage Act.

In 2016, about 300 dairy workers for DeRuyter Brothers Dairy claimed that the dairy farm failed to pay overtime. DeRuyter milkers used mechanized equipment to milk close to 3,000 cows per shift, three shifts a day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The workers alleged that they generally worked over 40 hours per week while laboring in dangerous conditions without receiving overtime pay.

Consequently, the workers argued, the agricultural exemption for overtime pay violated the Washington State Constitution because the exemption grants a privilege or immunity to the agricultural industry pursuant to a law implicating a fundamental right of state citizenship—the right of all workers in dangerous industries to receive workplace health and safety protections.

The state constitution protects employees working in “certain especially dangerous industries,” and the Washington Supreme Court recognized that the legislature enacted this protection in the form of the Minimum Wage Act. The court explained that DeRuyter milkers “constitute the type of workers protected by the state constitution because they worked long hours in conditions dangerous to life and deleterious to their health.”

Operating around the clock in order to service 3,000 cows, DeRuyter required milkers to stay onsite until all cows were milked and to help clean the barn, unless excused early. The members of the class action worked over 40 hours per week, over 80 percent of the time they were employed by DeRuyter. Since the Minimum Wage Act excludes agricultural workers from the definition of employee and results in an exemption from the act’s overtime requirement, the court concluded that the act granted dairy farmers a privilege or immunity from paying otherwise mandatory overtime pay.

Subsequently, the court scrutinized the exemption provision to determine whether it in fact served the legislature’s stated goal. DeRuyter asserted that lawmakers found that the seasonal nature of farming and changes in weather, crop growth, commodity market prices and husbandry rendered agricultural work ill-suited to the 40-hour workweek and overtime pay under the Minimum Wage Act.

The Washington Supreme Court, however, did not find support for DeRuyter’s assertions. DeRuyter dairy workers milked thousands of cows per shift, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unlike piece-rate seasonal workers. Further, the court noted that other industries employing seasonal workers, such as retail, were not exempt from the overtime protections.

Finally, the legislative history offered by DeRuyter did not reference seasonality or the variations of agricultural work as considered during the passage of the Minimum Wage Act. As such, the Washington Supreme Court found the agricultural workers exemption as applied to dairy workers to be unconstitutional.

Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy Inc., Wash., No. 96267-7 (Nov. 5, 2020).

Professional Pointer: Although the Fair Labor Standards Act exempts certain categories from its overtime provisions, such as farmworkers and employees of movie theaters, some states may not recognize the same exemption. An employer must comply with the most stringent of the federal or state law.

Roger S. Achille is an attorney and a professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

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Written by HR Today

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