Washington growers concerned about retroactive overtime pay liability got one step closer to certainty on Tuesday, when the state Senate approved a plan to phase in overtime pay for most farmworkers and prevent claims for back pay.

The bill, developed in response to a December ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court in favor of dairy workers who challenged the state’s agricultural exemption from overtime requirements, was approved with bipartisan support and now heads to the state House of Representatives. 

The state Supreme Court decision made dairy workers eligible for overtime pay immediately, but left the question of other agricultural workers open to interpretation — an uncomfortable spot for employers not looking to be the next test case in front of the courts. Lawmakers from agricultural regions sponsored the legislation to provide more certainty and limit back pay claims in light of the new decision against employers who had been following state law.

Protection from retroactive pay claims was a priority for the tree fruit industry, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. 

The bill underwent considerable debate and revision before the final vote on March 9, the last day for bills to move forward for the legislative session. As it stands, overtime pay requirements for non-dairy-farm workers would start at over 55 hours in 2022, 48 hours in 2023, and then hit the state standard 40 hours in 2024, DeVaney told the Washington State Fruit Commission during a board meeting on Wednesday. 

But the industry had pushed for a “seasonality agreement” — allowing for an overtime threshold up to 50 hours during harvest — that didn’t make it into the bill the Senate approved. DeVaney said he was working with lawmakers in the House to see if that can be included in the final legislation.