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José Martínez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar, who both milked cows for DeRuyter Brothers Dairy, Inc. in Washington, sued for overtime pay. Their actions have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of farmworkers.

In Washington, snow covers the fields of fruits and vegetables, but that does not mean the food will go to waste. Farmworkers are still there, toiling in freezing temperatures, making sure people get their produce. Now, because of the bravery of José Martínez-Cuevas and Patricia Aguilar, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers in Washington will get paid for working overtime. 

On Nov. 5, a Washington Supreme Court ruled that farmworkers are entitled to get paid overtime. Many states still do not require companies to pay farmworkers overtime, but that could change after this new ruling. 

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The ruling stated that Washington dairy workers are entitled to overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week, a decision expected to apply to the rest of the agriculture industry.

For the past 60 years, state law—like federal law—has exempted farmworkers from classes of workers who are entitled to overtime pay, but in a 5-4 ruling, the court found that unconstitutional. The majority said the Washington Constitution grants workers in dangerous industries a fundamental right to health and safety protections, including overtime, which is intended to discourage employers from forcing employees to work excessive hours. The historic ruling comes after the Trump administration attempted to lower the wages of farmworkers

While the Washington ruling applied only directly to the dairy industry, its reasoning covers all of the 200,000-plus farmworkers in the state’s $10.6 billion agriculture industry, said Lori Isley, an attorney with the nonprofit Columbia Legal Services, who represented the dairy workers.

The decision makes Washington the first state to grant farmworkers overtime protections through the courts. United Farm Workers stated on Twitter that most states do not provide their workers with overtime pay regardless of how many hours or extra days they work. However, those laws could be changing. 

California is phasing in some overtime protections, while New York this year began requiring overtime pay for farmworkers who work more than 60 hours in a week. Maryland and Minnesota also offer overtime protections to farmworkers.

In response to the ruling, United Farm Workers (UFW) President Teresa Romero and UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres issued a statement saying the issue of overtime is not just about fair wages but about systematic racism. 

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“The meaning of the state Supreme Court’s decision for farm workers goes far beyond making more money by winning time-and-a-half overtime pay after eight hours of work a day,” the statement said. “It is about righting a racist historical wrong when farmworkers were excluded from overtime and other protections of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 solely because they were people of color.”

History Makers 

Overtime pay for hundreds of thousands of farmworkers in Washington would have never gone to court if it hadn’t been for Martínez-Cuevas and Aguilar, who both milked cows for DeRuyter Brothers Dairy, Inc.

In 2016, Martínez-Cuevas, a United Farm Workers dairy worker activist, and Aguilar sued DeRuyter Brothers Dairy for fair pay. The lawsuit included 300 fellow DeRuyter dairy workers. Their cause inspired hundreds of California farmworkers to lobby for similar law changes in the Golden State. 

“This is an incredible victory for farmworkers in Washington state,” Martínez-Cuevas said to Columbia Legal Services. “I’ve had to work lots of overtime hours under very dangerous conditions—just like thousands of other workers around the state. We deserve to be treated like other workers in dangerous industries and be paid fairly for our work.”

UFW said that after this victory, they would help farmworkers nationwide organize and demand overtime pay. 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.