In a 5–4 vote, the state Supreme Court of Washington has ruled that agricultural workers, at least those who work in the dairy industry, are entitled to overtime pay under the state constitution.

With opinions filed Nov. 5, the state’s highest court ruled in a four-year-old case that Washington’s exemption to overtime law for agricultural workers is unconstitutional. 

The majority authors applied their opinion specifically to dairy workers, leaving questions about the rest of the state’s agricultural workforce, including those in the tree fruit industry. Three of the five majority justices also signed a separate but related opinion that signaled the overtime right should apply to all agricultural workers.

The verdict stems from a 2016 class-action lawsuit in Yakima County Superior Court by 300 dairy workers seeking relief for several workplace complaints. Most were settled. However, the overtime issue made it to the state Supreme Court.

The ruling also left open the question of whether overtime pay should be retroactive, because the court was not specifically asked about it. Past agricultural employment-related rulings by the Supreme Court have required three years of back pay.

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association filed briefs on behalf of the tree fruit industry in the Supreme Court case.

—by Ross Courtney