As Washington’s new farming overtime law phases in, Chelan-area cherry and apple orchardist Madison McPherson says it could force many small farms to sell out to larger operations.
“Farming is getting tougher and tougher,” said McPherson. “Smaller orchards have a harder time keeping up with the bigger operations because the way labor is going and costs just keep increasing. If it’s not one thing, then at the end of the day it’s the weather.”
Washington State recently passed a new overtime law for farming, making it the first state in the nation to force a 40-hour work week and time-and-a-half overtime pay for all agricultural employees.
What the new law’s proponents didn’t say is that the overtime law does more harm than good, eliminating the opportunity for farmworkers to make a livable wage and taking away the sense of community found on many small family farms, as many may not survive.
In a recent Real Food Real People Podcast episode, McPherson sat down with Dillon Honcoop of Save Family Farming and shared how many family farms say this new law could be the final nail in the coffin, especially if the state legislature does not act to add flexibility for farming’s unique seasonality.
“There are different types of industries,” McPherson said, pointing to the unique nature of tree fruit and other seasonal crop farming. “We don’t [ work ] overtime all year long. It’s only in harvest time when the fruit demands the work.”
“It’s a symbiotic relationship with labor,” she said. “We can only get the fruit off if we have the [ labor ] force to pick out. We really value our workers, our labor force, I know their families, we share Christmas times together. It’s a community.”
McPherson said the truth about the H-2A guest worker program is completely the opposite of what labor activist groups claim when they say people coming from out of the country are preferred for jobs.
“We wouldn’t use it if we didn’t have to,” she said, explaining that farmers are required to work extensively to recruit domestic workers before using the highly-regulated and expensive program as a last resort.
With wages for the H-2A program in Washington among the highest in the country, guest workers’ pay is set by the government, and has almost doubled in the last seven years to $16.34 per hour. Farmers are also required to cover all transportation and other costs to bring guest workers into the country, as well as provide high-quality, government inspected and approved housing.
McPherson said many small family farms are at a crossroads. “You’re either at a position where you don’t have enough labor and you can’t get your fruit out in a quality manner, so that is really hurting you, or if you are able to bring in labor, it’s so expensive it’s almost a wash for both of those scenarios.”
Yet, the price the farmer is getting for their fruit remains flat. “Buyers will only pay a certain amount for an apple, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is,” said McPherson.
She expects the big farms who can afford to build additional guest worker housing will simply hire more workers to avoid the need to pay overtime.
“And I think the workers are going to get less hours,” she added. “Instead of having one job during harvest time, in order to make the same amount from the year before, they might be looking at having more than one job.”
While the new farming overtime law may sound like progress to someone not familiar with life on a farm, McPherson warned that it may have the opposite effect, killing smaller family farms and giving the advantage to large corporate farming, as well as significantly reducing workers’ take home pay and ability to earn a living wage.
“It sounds good, no one wants to hurt people or not pay their worth. I think everyone is in agreement there. At the same time, there’s this whole other scenario where people are going to be getting around all that.”