OUTLOOK, Wash. - Two dairy workers have brought a class action lawsuit against Outlook-based DeRuyter Brothers Dairy they hope will not only help restore wages for themselves and their co-workers but also end a provision to the state minimum wage law making agricultural workers ineligible for overtime pay.
The plaintiffs, Jose Martinez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar, milked cows for the dairy. They claim that they worked at the 5,000-herd dairy nine to 12 hours a day, six days a week without rest breaks, meal periods or overtime pay, according to the lawsuit filed with Yakima County Superior Court Thursday.
Owners of DeRuyter Brothers Dairy did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
The court must approve the class action. There could be more than 50 workers included in the class but that number could change, said Lori Isley, directing attorney with the Working Family Project at Columbia Legal Services, which is representing the workers. Seattle attorney Marc Cote of Terrell Marshall Law Group also is representing the workers.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim this class of workers were not provided meal and rest breaks, did not receive pay for duties done before and after their work shifts, and did not receive overtime pay.
The lawsuit also takes issue with an overtime exemption in Washington's Minimum Wage Act extended to agricultural employers in 1959, which attorneys said was racially motivated.
The statute, attorneys said, violates the privileges and immunities clause of the state constitution, by giving agricultural employers special treatment and, in turn, discriminating against Latino farm workers.
Across the country, state legislatures and courts are ending provisions that have exempted farmworkers from various labor provisions. In September, California passed a new law making farmworkers eligible for overtime pay. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo voiced support to allow farmworkers to unionize after the state was sued by the New York Civil Liberties Union. And the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a provision exempting farm and ranch workers from worker compensation was unconstitutional.
"We're seeing some momentum around the country to challenge these type of exclusions," Isley said.
For dairy farmers, however, that movement may lead to disastrous results, said Jay Gordon, an Elma-based dairy farmer and policy director for the Washington State Dairy Federation.
Agricultural employers are already being challenged with the passage of Initiative 1433, which would raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour in January and to $13.50 by 2020, he said. Ending the overtime exemption would create more problems.
"It's going to be pretty tough on a lot of ag," Gordon said. "A lot of (producers) will leave and a lot will wonder how to cut jobs (to cover labor costs)."
Past case law in Washington state has led to extended labor protections for farmworkers. In 1983, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that a provision to exclude farmworkers from getting workers' compensation if they did not earn at least $150 from the same employer was unconstitutional. The ruling involved the case of a trio of migrant workers who sued the state Department of Labor and Industries. The workers had all been injured on the job but did not receive workers' compensation because they had not earned $150 from the employer they were working for.
In 1995, the state Supreme Court ruled that farmworkers had the right to organize. The case, Bravo v. Dolsen Cos., came from two dairy workers who sued the Yakima Valley dairy after being fired and harassed for attempting to negotiate better wages and working conditions. Evergreen Legal Services was involved in that case.