Sunnyside dairyman Jason Sheehan spoke openly about the fight for justice state farmers are facing from class action lawsuits brought on by opportunistic attorneys who seem more concerned about the threatening demands for three years of retroactive wages, subsequent settlement and legal fees than protecting workers’ rights or their jobs.
Following the public hearing before the Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs Committee on Thursday, Jan. 28, Sheehan provided testimony on behalf of Washington Senate Bill 1572, sponsored by Sen. Curtis King of Yakima, which limits a court’s decision from awarding back overtime wage claims by prohibiting factors that create “inequitable results.”
“The one thing I notice the most about it is that agriculture is really united in this and there’s a lot of frustration out there. This could be a precedent set by our judicial systems where suddenly they’re interpreting laws of how they choose to and not what the intent of the law was,” Sheehan conveyed in an interview last Saturday.
The Washington Supreme Court’s decision that overturned the 1959 state law exempting farm employees from overtime pay on Nov. 5, 2020. The court did not address the award issue at the time, however, the state’s general rule favors retroactivity in most cases, according to the bill.
“First of all, dairy farmers; we’re not opposed to paying overtime,” Sheehan stated. He believed the entire community of dairy farmers began implementing an overtime system for more than 40 hours per work week in accordance with last year’s ruling.
Manager Dario Madera has kept equipment and personnel operations running productively at J&K Dairy for the past 18 years and prior to that, he worked for Olsen Brothers Ranches, a multigenerational family farm for 18 years in Benton County.
“I feel very comfortable working here and am always moving around in supporting all areas of the operation,” Madera candidly expressed. “Jason, the owner is a great person too and his family, they support the people here whenever they have a problem and are always very helpful.”
Another reason he enjoys working at the East Edison Road dairy is that everyone here is like family and they’ve been working together for a long time, the 36-year agricultural professional said.
There are 26 lawsuits with 17 filed against state dairies and the remaining litigation designated for apple and egg farms. Lawyers from as far away from Southern California have joined in the class action case demanding three years back pay for overtime while the courts have yet to pass judgement on that issue, the partner of J&K Dairy Farm said.
“It’s a complete money grab by lawyers. They’re in the litigation industry. They’re out to make money. This truly has nothing to do with the employees because in the end, these lawyers will settle for half of the amount owed and they’ll take a third to a half of that,” Sheehan advocated.
He also pointed out that agricultural workers have been paid a good wage over the years and have averaged $17 an hour. The state has the highest minimum wage in the country and most of the dairy workers are paid well above last year’s $13.50 wage.
“These workers come here because they love working with cows and they’ve made good money all these years. It was never about overtime,” Sheehan acknowledged. “The lawyers have turned this into an overtime deal and want to make quick and easy money off farms and pass some of it on to the employees.”
Mercedes Silva started with the company seven years ago. She is the only woman employee at J&K Dairy and over the course of her career, has learned all about the daily care of cows and heifers, while working her way up to the position of herdsman.
Because she was able to gain additional knowledge and hands-on training which provided her an opportunity for advancement, Silva admitted that was big reason on why she enjoys working there.
“I love being able to better the lives of the cows and helping to make sure they are well taken care,” Silva enthusiastically communicated.
The 3,000-cow dairy produces about 250,000 pounds of milk per day and employs 37 people. 80% have been there for three years and of those experienced staff, more than a third have 10 to 24 years with the company, Sheehan informed.
“So, we have people that have been with us for a long time. Obviously, if the pay was an issue with these people, they would have gone and found work elsewhere.”
Sheehan noted they’ve been paying some type of overtime since 2015. They watched New York and California farms begin to slowly implement overtime practices and followed their plan with an initial 60 hour work week, decreasing five hours annually and eventually working down to 40 hours.
“I figured that was the right way to treat our longtime employees and now, even though we were going above and beyond the law, we’re getting sued,” Sheehan declared. “Our employees are shocked that we’re getting sued for overtime.”