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The cost of a strawberry: Overtime battle for Washington's farm workers

Strawberry season doesn’t mean strawberry shortcake or strawberry jam for Ana. It means long days bent nearly double to snap ripe strawberries from where they grow, near the ground.

“You have to lean over a lot to pick strawberries,” she said. “So of course everything hurts: your legs, your back--everything.”

Ana was interviewed in Spanish. Her statements have been translated for this article.

Ana is a farm worker near Mt. Vernon. She moved to the United States from Mexico nearly 20 years ago. KUOW is not publishing her last name because she’s undocumented.

The surge of coronavirus cases in the Yakima Valley has focused new attention on working conditions on farms in Washington state. One demand farm workers have been making for awhile: overtime pay.

No matter how many hours they work per week, people who work picking fruit, caring for livestock, or milking cows get paid at the same rate.

A case before the Washington State Supreme Court could change that.

Ana said she’s in the strawberry field by 5:30 a.m. every morning, and she’s usually there till four or five at night. She works seven days a week.

She said she doesn’t have a choice. She and her husband have five kids to support -- four here, and one back in Mexico.

“I have a big family, and I spend everything I make on things my children need,” she said. “When you have a car, you have to put gas in it. I can’t save any money because my children are big and that means their needs are expensive.”

“Farm workers work long hours,” said Rosalinda Guillén, a farm worker organizer in the Skagit Valley. “It’s harmful. I mean, these are like extremely debilitating, exhausting labor. We’re just exhausted by the time we’re 25, 30 years old.”

The US first created a minimum wage and overtime protections for workers in 1938. At the time, most farm workers were Black, and federal lawmakers excluded them from the protections. That exclusion has remained in place federally and in most states.

Now, Washington’s farm workers are challenging that exclusion in the state’s Supreme Court.

“If we establish here in Washington state that these exclusions are informed by their racist origins, advocates and farm workers in other states would be able to bring similar challenges where they are,” said Lori Isley, the lawyer who argued the case on behalf of the farm workers

In the past couple of years, lawmakers in California and New York have mandated that farmers pay overtime to their employees. But Washington would be the first state to strike down the exclusion of farm workers in court.

Brad Carpenter is a fifth-generation hops farmer in the Yakima Valley. During harvest, his family’s farm employs 300 to 400 people. He says many of them work 70 or more hours a week.

He says not paying them overtime isn’t racism -- it’s just farming.

“The agriculture industry is very unique,” he said. “It has very unique situations, including weather-related timing of what you need to get done.”

Take hops varieties. Carpenter says each has its own harvest window.

“If you pick it too late, it’ll have off flavors. If you pick it too early, it won’t be developed enough,” he said. “Once you get behind, you’re in trouble, and you almost have to just say, ‘OK, I missed out on these last 100 acres of whatever variety. I’ve got to go to the next variety.’”

Carpenter says he has multi-year contracts with brewers. That means, if the price of labor changed--for instance, if he had to pay overtime--he wouldn’t be able to recover those costs for a few years. He’d just be hemorrhaging cash.

After that, he says, he’d pass on the increased costs.

“It doesn’t only put a burden on us,” he said. “But it puts a burden on everyone in the system, all the way through to the market.”

And he says there’s already a solution for workers.

“If time and a half is important to an employee, they should probably look for a job that will pay time and a half,” he said.

Back in the Skagit Valley, Ana says farm work is what she does.

“I hope they can raise farm workers’ wages,” she said. “Because it’s hard. Working in the fields is really hard.”

Experts say the Washington State Supreme Court is taking an unusually long time to make this decision. It’s now been more than eight months since the justices heard oral arguments.

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