Even though the economy is recovering slowly, Washington farmers have seen major growth and success. Unfortunately, this rapid growth and the improving economy have led to a shortage in local farm workers. According to a Tri-City Herald story, Tri-City farmers hired more cherry and apple pickers last season than they did at the start of the recession, but this season they face a dramatic change. Washington crops are continually growing and Washington farmers are expanding the types of crops grown. Cherries, apples, grapes, asparagus and now blueberries are labor-intensive and are in high demand. More crops, as well as crops with overlapping harvesting seasons, create competing demands for workers. And now there are fewer local farm workers than there were when the recession began.
The economic recovery in Washington may be partly to blame. Individuals who might have taken farm work can now find employment in other recovering
industries that tend to pay better, are more consistent, and, in some cases, less labor intensive. Farmers have fewer options when competing for farm workers. They can offer higher wages or other incentives, but higher wages can make harvesting too expensive. Or they can take part in a federal program that provides “guest” workers, but using the program is expensive and time consuming. In the worst case scenario, farmers are forced to let large portions of their crops die. Some farmers have created better facilities to entice workers, while others are switching from “fresh market” to “processed” farming, which means they are automating the harvesting process and reducing the amount of produce available fresh in markets. But, many farmers and experts expect the competing and growing demand for farm workers will continue.
Farm Workers & Employment Laws
Washington state laws address various employment concerns of farm workers. Washington’s minimum wage applies to both agricultural and non-agricultural workers. Washington’s minimum wage applies to both agricultural and non-agricultural workers. This means the minimum wage for farm workers is $9.32 an hour. While agricultural workers are entitled to state’s minimum wage, some farm workers can be exempt from the minimum wage requirement. These farm workers are permanent residents who are paid on a piece rate basis; for instance those paid by the bushel. Additionally, many farm workers are not entitled to overtime wages under state law. Farm workers who work for businesses that pack grade, store and deliver products to market, or are paid piece rate, will likely no be eligible for overtime pay. Although some farm workers may not get overtime, they are entitled to the same break and lunch period as non-agricultural employees.
Farm workers are also protected under the state’s workplace safety laws. Washington’s workplace safety laws have a section specific to agricultural safety laws are very detailed in order to address the wide variety of dangers associated with farm work. They cover a wide array of topics, from providing safe-functioning equipment and protection from chemicals, if they are used to shade and water needs in hot conditions, to employee responsibilities.
If you have questions about employee wages, overtime, or workplace safety, an HKM employment attorney can help.