On Nov. 5, a divided Washington State Supreme Court declared that 60-year-old overtime exemptions for dairy workers in the state of Washington are unconstitutional under the Washington Constitution.

The Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy could have sweeping effects on the overtime exemptions for agricultural workers that have been in effect in the state since 1959.

In 2016, dairy workers for DeRuyter Brothers Dairy filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, alleging that the dairy failed to pay them minimum wage, did not provide the required rest and meal breaks, failed to compensate pre- and post-shift duties, and failed to pay overtime. The parties settled all claims except for the overtime pay claims.

In the lawsuit, dairy workers alleged they performed work in dangerous conditions and generally worked more than 40 hours per week without receiving overtime pay.

Attorneys for the dairy workers also argued that the agricultural exemption to the overtime requirement violates article I, section 12 of the Washington State Constitution by granting a privilege or immunity to the agricultural industry under a law implicating a fundamental right of state citizenship — the right of all workers in dangerous industries to receive workplace health and safety protections.

The Court agreed, finding that the overtime exemption for dairy workers undermined a fundamental state constitutional right to protect the health and safety of all workers in dangerous jobs.

Reasoning that the Minimum Wage Act (RCW Chapter 49.46) provides a mandated statutory safeguard to the constitutional right to protections from dangerous working conditions as expressed in article II, section 35 of the state constitution, the Court determined that the overtime exemption provided to dairies violated the privileges and immunities clause, article I, section 12 of Washington’s constitution.

The Court’s ruling hinged on industry-specific findings that dairy work is year-round (as opposed to seasonal) and inherently hazardous and that the extremely dangerous nature of dairy work entitles dairy workers to statutory protection as set forth in Washington’s constitution.

The DeRuyter ruling is limited to dairy workers in Washington and the majority opinion declined to extend the ruling to all agricultural workers exempted from overtime payment. However, in a concurring opinion, three justices indicated a willingness to extend the ruling to all agricultural workers in the state.

This year, two new justices were elected to the Court who did not participate in this ruling. Only time will tell how the new Court will rule on future cases involving the agricultural exemption from overtime pay, but agricultural employers should be aware that the exemption is likely to face additional challenges across different agricultural industries, particularly those that involve year-round operations.

The Apple Valley Human Resources Association's Virtual Employment Law Summit on Dec. 10 will include more information about this case, other employment law developments of 2020 and what to look for in 2021. For details go to avhra.shrm.org.

Erin McCool is a member in the Wenatchee office of Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC, practicing in the areas of litigation, employment and labor law, and land use and water. She provides advice and consultation to local businesses, employers and municipalities regarding state and federal employment laws. She can be reached at emccool@omwlaw.com or 662-1954.