This week, 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 support of SB 5172, a bill concerning the retroactivity of overtime claims in exceptional cases. More than 150 people were signed up to testify. Here is Berg’s testimony, which will also be submitted in writing.
“Good morning Madam Chair, Ranking Member King and members of the committee. My name is Nicole Berg. I am a fourth generation wheat farmer in Paterson, and I farm with my dad and two brothers. We employ four full time employees and generally hire five part-time employees during the summer harvest.
I’m here in strong support of SB 5172. It is unfair to penalize farmers for following a law that has been well established and on the books for over 60 years. All the guidance over the years from Labor & Industries, the agency responsible for enforcing overtime requirements, has clearly spelled out that agriculture is exempt from paying overtime. To all of a sudden have a court throw out that exemption and farmers be threatened with liability for retroactive overtime when it was not required by law is blatantly unfair and unethical.
To give you some perspective, most of our workers work over 40 hours a week except 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. Many of the workers on our farm working during harvest have enjoyed working longer hours during the summer so they could save money to help pay for their college education. My dad, myself, my brothers, and now my nephews are working hard on the farm to pay for college.
The wheat industry has faced challenges in recent years with low commodity prices at or below our break even cost of production. We are also price takers as we can’t set our price nor pass on expenses to the customer. Many farms are barely getting by, and lack of resolution on this issue could threaten their viability moving forward.
The agriculture industry needs clarity and leadership from the legislature on this issue. We can’t wait while this issue is tied up in the courts for years without knowing our liability for retroactive overtime pay. 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.”
You can watch the hearing here.