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States face obstacles in making farmworkers eligible for overtime pay

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Since the 1930s, hourly workers in the U.S. have enjoyed the right to overtime. Work more than 40 hours a week; you start earning time and a half. But farm workers have not been in on that deal. A carve-out dating back to the Jim Crow era made them ineligible for overtime. One effort to remedy that has had mixed results. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: At 7:30 in the morning, the sun is already shining bright over Washington State.

ALAN SCHREIBER: Let's just hop in the truck.

HSU: Alan Schreiber, owner of Schreiber Farms, drives us past rows of cauliflower of all colors.

SCHREIBER: White, purple, orange, green.

HSU: Our destination - an asparagus field, where the harvest has just wrapped up.

SCHREIBER: We can walk down here.

HSU: The field is mostly cleared, but there are a few tender, green spears poking up from the soil.

SCHREIBER: In five hours, that'll be 50%, again, taller.

HSU: That's how fast asparagus grows, which means during the April to June harvest, the rows have to be picked every day, sometime twice a day. And with everything else workers need to do on the farm, like planting watermelon, people like Patricia Mendoza (ph) put in a lot of hours.

PATRICIA MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: Up to 70 hours a week.

SCHREIBER: That was their best money for the whole year.

HSU: And it helped sustain them through the winter. But things are changing. In 2021, Washington state passed a law extending overtime pay to farm workers with a multi-year phase-in. This year time and a half kicks in after 48 hours a week. Next year it kicks in after 40, just like in other industries. Schreiber says already, he can't afford it.

SCHREIBER: The economics are painful.

HSU: A handpicked crop like asparagus is costly to produce. You need seed, fertilizer, water, of course, but the biggest expense is labor.

SCHREIBER: It is stoop labor. It's hard, hard work.

HSU: And so it pays better than other work. Skilled asparagus cutters can earn more than $30 an hour. But turn some of those hours into time and a half, and Schreiber says he will lose money. The margins are already thin, and he says he can't just raise his prices. The market won't support it.

SCHREIBER: The addition of overtime makes our already-high labor costs completely uncompetitive to Mexico and Peru.

HSU: So Alan Schreiber found a workaround. This year, for the first time, he hired a labor contractor to bring him extra workers. Now he can keep everyone to 48 hours a week and avoid paying overtime. It's created a rift with his employees, many of whom have been with him for more than two decades. Maria Madrigal (ph) has cut asparagus for years.

MARIA MADRIGAL: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: She says, "it's difficult to keep going all day. Every minute you're bent over cutting asparagus is tiring. But we did it to earn more money."

MADRIGAL: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: During asparagus season, she typically worked seven days a week, but not this year. She and a couple other women told Schreiber, if you're keeping us to 48 hours a week, we don't want to be at the farm every day. Child care is too expensive.

MADRIGAL: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: Madrigal says to make up for the lost income, she's forgoing things like new clothes and shoes for her children. She scoffs at the argument that less time in the fields means more time at home with her family. If we can't cover our expenses, she says, we'll have to work two jobs.

MADRIGAL: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: Patricia Mendoza remembers being happy when she first heard that farm workers would get overtime pay.

MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: She says, "I told Alan, you're going to have to pay us a lot of overtime."

MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: But it hasn't turned out that way - in fact, the opposite. Schreiber tells us people used to make $1,400 a week in asparagus season. This year, even after a big hourly raise, no one was even making a thousand. We ask Mendoza what she thinks is the solution.

MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

HSU: Take away the overtime, she says. In fact, earlier this year, the Washington legislature considered giving employers a 12-week exemption from the overtime rule. The bill didn't make it out of committee, but many expect it'll be back next year. To Democratic State Senator Rebecca Saldana, a seasonal exemption is unthinkable. She says feeding our nation should not be sacrificial work.

REBECCA SALDANA: Your bodies matter. And if you work more than 40 hours, that is a sacrifice.

HSU: One that needs to be fairly compensated. She says farm owners like Alan Schreiber have power. They could fight for subsidies for the fruits and vegetables they grow.

SALDANA: I don't think any of us have the right to be defeatist.

HSU: Another idea out there - people could pay more for their food. Saldana says other industries, like construction, have figured out how to pay overtime. It's time agriculture did, too. Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.