Bill that would require higher OT for Oregon farmworkers lives another day

A proposal to require higher overtime wages for Oregon farmworkers will remain in play for the rest of the 2022 legislative session.

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The House Business and Labor Committee has voted 7-4 to refer House Bill 4002 to the House Revenue Committee, which isn’t subject to legislative deadlines that cull proposed legislation.

“I will continue to advocate for its passage because I feel it’s the right thing to do,” Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene and the committee’s chair, said.

The bill would phase in a requirement for farmers to pay workers time-and-a-half overtime wages, beginning with a weekly threshold of 55 hours in 2023 and falling to 40 hours by 2027.

The committee also passed an amendment that increases the maximum tax credits that farms may claim for overtime wages.

Under the amendment, farmers with more than 25 workers would qualify for refundable tax credits of 60% of the overtime amount when the statute kicks in next year. That rate would gradually fall until ending in 2028 at 15%.

For farmers with fewer than 25 workers, the tax credit rate would start at 75% and also end at 15% in 2028.

Under the original version of HB 4002, the tax credit would have started at 50% and ended at 20%, regardless of farm size.

The bill’s amended language would cap the statewide amount of tax credits at $27 million, though Holvey said that number could increase while the legislation is deliberated by the House Revenue Committee.

Holvey said it’s “heart-breaking” the farm industry has become economically reliant on workers who live in poverty.

The committee rejected an amendment supported by Republican lawmakers, which aimed to provide more flexibility to farm employers.

Under that proposal, the overtime threshold would start at 60 hours next year and decrease to 50 hours in 2025.

Growers would also be allowed to designate a “peak labor period” of 22 weeks per year during which the overtime threshold would remain at 60 hours per week.

“I really believe this is an Oregon solution we can all be proud of,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart-Davis, R-Albany, who proposed the amendment.

The amendment would allow Oregon farmers to stay competitive in the global market that dictates crop and livestock prices, said Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles.

“It’s a solution that would allow workers to thrive and for farmers to stay farming,” he said.

Holvey said he opposed the amendment because it would take away farmworkers’ eligibility for overtime wages after 40 hours per week.

“I know margins are tight but so are budgets for workers,” he said.

Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, said she opposed the amendment because it would “really nullify the intent of this bill.”

Farmworkers understand their work hours may be reduced if the overtime bill passes, but the change will hopefully improve their health, she said.

“They really don’t want an exemption when they’d most need the overtime hours,” Salinas said.

Bonham said that’s not what he’s heard from farmworkers who were afraid of losing income if their weekly hours were capped.

“They’ve told me: This will lead me to get a second job,” he said. “The folks I’ve talked to want those hours.”

Supporters are making HB 4002 sound like it will guarantee overtime hours, but that’s not a promise they may be able to keep, Bonham said.

Rep. Jami Cate, R-Lebanon, said the bill may restrict the flexibility of work schedules and deprive workers of the opportunity to pursue educations.

As a farmer, she’s already considering HB 4002’s impacts, Cate said. “It does force me to look at mechanization and how to reduce labor requirements.”

Eighty years ago, the exemption of agriculture from higher overtime wages was the “original sin” that led to current problems, said Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth.

It’s quite likely that HB 4002 won’t increase income for farmworkers or lead to more dire consequences, Evans said.

“I know full well jobs will be lost,” he said.

Hopefully, the bill will improve as it’s considered by other committees and lawmakers, Evans said. The short legislative session must end March 7.

Despite his concerns, Evans said he would “bite the bullet” and pass the bill out of committee because he believes in equal protection under the law.

“Sometimes our job is to right the wrongs of the past,” he said.

Posted at the Blue Mountain Eagle by Mateusz Perkowski Capital Press on 02/14/22

Date: 2022-02-15 07:40

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