Farmworkers struggle to make ends meet after losing out on work hours available only during busy harvest season

Normally, January would be time for Washington farmworkers who harvest our state’s seasonal crops in summer and fall to slow down and spend more time with family.

Many would often travel during this time of year, with many in the largely Hispanic community maintaining strong family connections to Mexico and other countries south of the border.

But thanks to the state’s new overtime law for farm work, thousands of workers this winter are struggling financially, cutting back on holiday gifts, watching grocery and rent costs closely, and looking for second and third jobs just to make ends meet.

This harmful, counterintuitive outcome of new rules ostensibly intended to help workers is a sad testament to the tone-deaf machinations of Olympia lawmakers’ meddling in a world they don’t understand: Washington’s incredibly complex farming community that produces fruit and much other food famous around the globe for top quality and ethical production.

The new overtime law required time-and-a-half pay for farmworkers putting in over 48 hours a week in 2023. As of this month, it requires overtime pay over 40 hours, and has been lauded as a win for social equality.

But the real-world result, as family farms face already razor-thin margins and limit workers with regret to try to stay in business, is that farmworkers this past harvest season had their earning potential limited in a way never before seen in Washington state.

Fewer hours, smaller paychecks, and financial hardships for immigrant families hoping to pursue the American dream is the legacy of the state’s wrongheaded 2021 law to phase in overtime pay for farm work.

There’s just no way around it: the law has harmed not only family farms, but also the very farmworkers it claimed to benefit.

Now, workers are banding together to speak out about the harm this poorly thought out change is causing them, with nearly 1,000 workers meeting in a series of rallies in Eastern Washington, in the communities where they work to grow and harvest the state’s famous crops.

While a proposal to begin undoing this harm to farmworkers failed to gain traction in last year’s legislative session in Olympia, workers are more frustrated than ever, and pledge to make their voices heard.

Will lawmakers step outside their assumptions about the new law and recognize where it’s gone wrong?

Will leaders come together to craft a better way forward that actually benefits farmworkers and protects the future of family farming and local food production in Washington?

Will they find the courage to stand against the pressure of false farmworker advocates who hold a deep ideological and financial stake in their vision of factory-style overtime that’s already cost farmworkers so much?

With so much at stake, we hope they can move beyond stale political assumptions about the agricultural workforce to think ‘outside the box’ and truly bring positive change for so many in this state.