On December 8, 2016, two dairy workers in southern Washington state sued their employer for overtime pay. The class action lawsuit is challenging a long-time part of federal labor laws that exempts agricultural employees from overtime pay requirements.
This suit is the latest in a line of cases across the country. Agricultural workers are using the courts to break down laws that treat them differently from employees in other industries. Farmworkers have sued for the right to unionize, the right to workers’ compensation, and the right to a minimum wage.
Groups advocating for change claim that the law needs to change to account for industrialized large-scale farm operations of the modern era.
Idaho follows federal law with regard to overtime pay. Most employees have a right to “time-and-a-half” for hours worked in excess of forty per week. All employees employed in agriculture are exempt from this requirement. The exemption applies to any employee engaged in growing and harvesting crops, raising livestock, dairying, etc.
However, the exemption does not apply to employees who merely work on agricultural products, if such work is performed off the farm and by employees not employed by the farmer (e.g. produce or meat processing operations).
Idaho’s laws regarding minimum wage similarly mirror federal law. Employers in Idaho do not need to pay minimum wage to their immediate family members or employees principally engaged in the range production of livestock. Also exempt are harvest laborers traditionally paid on a piece-rate basis, as long as they do not live on site at the farm and only worked in agriculture for thirteen weeks or less the previous year. Harvest laborers under age sixteen are also exempt if they are employed on the same farm as a parent or guardian and are paid at the same rate as the adults.
The agricultural industry in the U.S. has changed dramatically in the last eighty years. The law will continue to change with it.