Business law

Farm workers in the Middle Willamette Valley and the new OT law

Antonio Gomorra Arias knows that farm work is not easy.

When he came to the US from Mexico in 1983, he was in his 30s and got a job picking strawberries near Corvallis — a job he learned quickly that was excruciating on his back and knees.

Picking garlic and onions was still too much stress on his back, so he tried bait fish, paying $15 for a bucket of 1,000 worms.

Eventually, he found a job more suitable for his height at Holiday Trees Farm in Corvallis, cutting and planting pine trees. He worked Monday through Saturday, but sometimes all week during time constraints, when he had to load trailers with freshly cut Christmas trees.

The work didn’t offer many benefits—no vacation, sick leave, or time off—but it did get me some extra work.







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Antonio Gomorra Arias sits outside Cologne Paz A residential complex in southern Lebanon.


Kosizou Oguide, Mid Valley Media


Gomorrah Arias, now 76 and living in an affordable apartment complex for farmworkers in Lebanon, knows that many Oregon farms don’t historically offer this benefit, which is why he’s interested to see how the new state law might, which forces the farmer to pay overtimeaffects the workers.

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Lots of people will be affected He said through an interpreter.

Although it remains to be seen how farm workers in the middle Willamette Valley will be affected, as the law makes its way through its first year on the books.

exhausting work

Oregon joined seven other states when the House passed Bill 4002 last year, which requires farmers to pay their employees one-and-a-half hours for working more than 40 hours a week.

However, the dramatic shift in Oregon’s farm industry will be gradual.

This year, overtime begins after 55 hours. In 2025, it will start 48 hours later, and by 2027, it will be 40, which is the standard limit for most industries across the country.

This is one of the reasons advocates have been lobbying so hard for the law. Historically, farm workers, many of whom are Hispanic and economically disadvantaged, have been excluded from overtime pay since the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which mandated benefit from most other workers.

Another reason for this pay: Overtime can be stressful, especially in farming.

Gomorrah Arias remembers the high demands of planting trees during the holiday season. He said he and his crew would start work at 6 a.m., and sometimes work until 1 a.m., or until as many trailers as the company needed to fill with pine trees were loaded.

By the mid-2000s, the intense operational work took its toll on his failing right shoulder, and he eventually decided to leave the operation.

matter of justice

While the new state rules will force farms across the valley to change how they compensate seasonal workers, for Peoria Gardens Arboretum in Albany it will be business as usual.

Elizabeth Peña is the supervisor at Peoria Gardenswhich has offered overtime pay for decades.

“For me, the way I look at it keeps people around me,” Peña said as she sat in a large room wrapping the nursery. She added that it is a work that requires physical effort and is difficult for the body.

Peña, who started working in Peoria 28 years ago as a seasonal worker, said the extra work helped her as a single mother of four, despite the sacrifices she made being away from her children.

“A little extra makes me feel like I can breathe now,” she said.







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Elizabeth Peña stands at a nursery in Peoria Gardens, Albany, where she oversees transplants.


Kosizou Oguide, Mid Valley Media


It is a matter of fairness to Peoria Gardens owner Ben Verhoeven. He took over operations from his father, who established the nursery in the 1980s, which has since become a medium-sized greenhouse selling flowers and vegetables.

The nursery currently employs 26 employees who grow young plants in full-size pots, irrigate, package and ship nursery products to western and central Oregon and western Washington.

But during the spring peak season, the company adds about 25 more sets of hands to meet demand from independent garden centers.

“As any farmer will tell you, you have to make hay when the sun is up,” Verhoeven said.

“It could mean long working hours, and employees have to stay on till work is done,” he said. “For my employees’ families to thrive, they must be compensated for their extra time and effort.”

“It was a controversial topic, and I can respect that,” Verhoeven added, acknowledging differing opinions about the new overtime requirements among ranchers.

But it’s also a topic he ran into last year, as one of many advocates pressing for passage of the overtime bill.

“Is it fair that a mother, who works harvesting on the farm, should be denied overtime pay, while her son gets paid while driving an Amazon truck during the Christmas rush?” Verhoeven wrote in a statement to the Joint Farm Workers Overtime Committee last year.

He also wrote that requiring employers to pay overtime would level the playing field between small farms and their Amazon-like counterparts.

Reducing working hours and tax exemptions

Of course, not everyone shares Verhoeven’s point of view.

Anne Kramer-Steenkamp, ​​who owns and operates Berries Northwest, believes the new law will be harmful to both farmers and farm workers.







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A view of the berry orchard at Berries Northwest in Albany on August 31, 2023. Owner Anne Krahmer-Steinkamp said she closely managed employees’ hours, so she only had to pay one worker overtime.


Jess Hume Pantuso, Mid Valley Media


She said her operation covers about 500 acres of blueberries across the state, including a farm in Albany.

It employs a full-time staff of about 15 people, usually 250 to 300 seasonal workers, who either pick berries by hand or operate the combines.

She said that during peak seasons, it is common for workers, both permanent and seasonal, to work 60 to 70 hours a week, with pickup workers earning an hourly rate of about $20 to $25 – although they are actually paid in pounds, she says. He said. That is, unless they collect enough berries to make minimum wage, in which case they are paid by the hour.

“Most workers will be paid more than the minimum wage,” she said.

But so far this season, it has cut staff hours and hired more seasonal workers, so that no one works more than 55 hours a week — the maximum overtime this year. Kramer Steenkamp said she couldn’t push the time and a half.

“It was a pain in the ass,” she said.

In her own letter to the legislature last year opposing the law, the sixth-generation farmer said the bill would cost her $350,000 to $500,000 in new labor costs.

Another point of contention: the law’s tax credits, designed to offset the cost of the new benefit to farmers.

These credits vary depending on the number of FTE workers the farm employs and the type of farming practiced. For example, a dairy farmer can get a tax break of up to 100% of overtime wages paid if she employs fewer than 25 full-time employees.

But those credits will also be phased out over the next few years. This year, for example, non-dairy farmers can get tax breaks of up to 90% of their overtime wages paid. But by 2028, those same farmers may only get 60%, or even 15% if they employ more than 50 people.

These employees do no service to Kramer-Steinkamp during the harvest season.

“I don’t even qualify for these packages,” she said.

She had hoped that lawmakers would include a “seasonal” exception in the bill, preventing the overtime rule from being applied during peak harvest times, when workers work their longest hours.







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Gilles Villagran, Left, and Maria Montejano, part-time workers at Peoria Gardens in Albany, begin the process of growing broccoli in a layer of soil.


Kosizou Oguide, Mid Valley Media


pass costs?

The harvest crisis has historically been a justification for excluding farm workers from overtime benefits, according to Oregon State University applied economics professor Tim Delbridge.

He said farmers have to work according to a crop schedule, rather than during a neat 40-hour work week, in contrast to the limited flexibility farmers have with workers in the auto industry, who don’t have to worry about parts rotting in assembly. Line.

The argument for an exemption from overtime during the busy harvest season, Delbridge said, is that employers want to limit workers to 40 hours to avoid overtime costs, even though workers and employees will want to work longer.

“The counterargument, of course, is: Well, you can still pay them overtime,” he added.

Ultimately, Delbridge said, the law’s impact on farms and agricultural workers is the degree to which industry can pass costs on to consumers, who are largely dependent on the crop.

Blueberry producers like Kramer-Steenkamp for example face stiff competition from berry producers in South America and elsewhere at this point in the season, leaving little room to maneuver to boost prices to cover additional labor costs – without alienating buyers.

Delbridge called efforts to support farm workers noble, but said it remains to be seen whether the state’s extra work action will actually benefit farm employees in the long term.

“I think the hourly wage is likely to go up because of this law,” Delbridge said, though he also said workers will see their hours cut and their overall income might go down because farmers will look for ways to avoid paying the extra rate. .

With some strategic scheduling, Kramer-Steenkamp said she only had to pay one worker overtime this season.

“It’s not that I don’t like my people,” Kramer-Steenkamp said. “The problem is we can’t pay it.”

Emotional work

Gomorra Arias, now retired, knows that seasonal farm workers will keep working whatever hours they can get. He said that many prefer to work by the box, rather than by the hour, so that they can earn more money.

He said that when he tried to pick strawberries in the 1980s, he was paid $1 per box. As fast as he could fill about 35 boxes a day. Others can fill in 60.

At Peoria Gardens, Peña knows you’re dealing with the time and the weather. Sometimes you have to ask people to stay over on Saturday to take care of the produce ready to plant, whether it’s flowers or tomatoes. She also knows the emotional toll it can take on a family.







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The first thing Elizabeth Peña does upon arriving at Peoria Gardens each morning is check with the staff at the nursery to make sure everyone is okay.


Kosizou Oguide, Mid Valley Media


“You leave out a lot of sports. You don’t go with your kids,” she said.

She added that overtime can’t renew those precious moments with the kids. But she said getting that extra pay can make the sacrifice more worthwhile.

“I think you need this little nudge, to make you feel like I’m doing something good.”

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