WAWG leader testifies as ‘other’ in ag overtime hearing

Today, Nicole Berg, a farmer from Benton County, a past president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and vice president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, testified in a House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee hearing on SB 5172, a bill concerning the retroactivity of overtime in agriculture. Here is her full testimony:

Good morning Chair Sells, Ranking Member Hoff and members of the committee. My name is Nicole Berg. I am a fourth-generation wheat farmer in Prosser. We employ four full time employees and generally hire five part-time employees during the summer harvest.

I’m here testifying as “other” on SB 5172 on behalf of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. We appreciate that the Senate recently passed Senate Bill 5172 with a “safe-harbor” provision, protecting farmers against back-pay claims for following the law. However, the bill did not address overtime flexibility for seasonal and harvest workers to protect family farms and their workers. This is especially critical for the wheat industry.

To give you some perspective, most of our workers only work over forty hours a week during harvest time which is from the last week of June through the end of July, so typically five weeks. Our harvest season and hours worked during the day is dictated by the weather and mostly out of our control. Our harvest workers are compensated for straight time for every hour worked so they enjoy getting the additional hours and wages during harvest. Many of the workers have enjoyed working longer hours during harvest so they could earn extra wages and save money to help pay for their college education.

Currently, there are only six states that require some form of overtime pay for agriculture workers. Most of those states either do not trigger overtime until after 60 hours or worked or have some sort of flexibility for harvest, recognizing the unique nature of agriculture. Only California phases in overtime down to 40 hours/week without some sort of provision that would account for increased seasonal hours, but it is notable that California has a much longer period for phasing in overtime than what Washington is proposing. California also is losing farms at a much higher rate than our state and this is not a trend we want to see our state follow.

The wheat industry has faced challenges in recent years with low commodity prices at or below our break even cost of production. Farmers already operate on thin margins, and with the price of our goods set by the global market, we can’t simply pass costs along to the consumer as other industries can. Many farms are barely getting by and lack of resolution on this issue could threaten their viability moving forward.

As wage laws change, farmers across Washington stand ready to adapt to these requirements and will continue to follow the law as they have done for decades.

Please do not punish them for following the law. Eliminating the overtime back pay requirement is an important component of this legislation, but so is flexibility from overtime during harvest.

We urge you to include provisions for harvest that would allow employees to earn money for up to 50 hours a week, before overtime provisions kick in. This would be a benefit to both workers and farmers.

Please pass this bill to help our family farms in the state stay open so that we can continue to do what we love – feed the world.

The full committee hearing can be viewed here.