Senate approves Hawkins’ agricultural-wage bill

OLYMPIA…The state Senate today passed legislation from Sen. Brad Hawkins that would offer remedies to tree fruit growers and other agricultural producers tangled in a recent Supreme Court decision about compensating workers for rest breaks.

“This bill would resolve a major issue from the court decision in a way that is good for both employers and workers,” Hawkins said after Senate Bill 5720 passed with a bipartisan vote of 28 to 18. “The workers would have an expedited opportunity to receive what amounts to back pay, and growers would have a defense against lawsuits currently affecting the tree-fruit industry and the communities that depend on it.”

The 2015 ruling in Demetrio v. Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. addressed workers paid not by the hour but by the piece or pound. The high court decided employers must pay employees for rest breaks separate and apart from piece-rate wage payments – and the rate of pay for the rest break time must at least equal the applicable minimum wage or the employee’s regular rate, whichever is greater.

Hawkins, whose 12th Legislative District is renowned for the production of tree fruit, said the court ruling has created a “dark cloud looming over the industry” and has spawned numerous recent lawsuits about prior uncompensated breaks that jeopardize orchards and people’s livelihoods.

“The bill that passed the Senate today details a process for how growers can compensate employees for past uncompensated rest breaks. If they choose the options we approved, their workers will get paid and they will be protected from lawsuits,” Hawkins said. “Our growers were compensating their employees in good faith, following state guidance and industry practices. I don’t want them punished by extended lawsuits, and I want the workers to get paid.”

SB 5720 would provide employers two options for paying workers for past, uncompensated rest breaks: the uncompensated amount across three years, plus interest, or a payment equaling 4.35 percent of a worker’s gross earnings. Employers doing either would be exempt from lawsuits.