Capital Press: Agriculture is fighting for survival in Washington state

The following is a commentary published in the Capital Press, written by Pam Lewison of the Washington Policy Center – Agriculture is fighting for survival in Washington state

Some moments lend themselves to hyperbole. That amazing fishing trip from seven years ago; the winning free throw at a high school basketball game; the marriage proposal when time stood still.

Or 2020, when Washington agriculture was fighting for its life after a court ruling forced the dairy sector to begin paying time-and-a-half and left the specter of retroactive pay lingering in the background like an unwanted flu just before vacation.

In our state, we are waging a war about how best to determine what “just” compensation looks like in the wake of the Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy court decision of November 2020. The dairy sector has its answer from the courts: dairy producers must pay time-and-a-half for any hours worked after 40. The rest of the agricultural community will have to wait and see what comes of the legislative session to determine how to move forward on the question of what constitutes a “work-week” in agriculture.

The ruling, however, left open the possibility of payment of more wages for past work. To be clear, the plaintiffs in the case were paid in full for their work. Any “back pay” would be applying the current law — time-and-a-half rules — to work done in the past. Specifically, it would be imposing a retroactive punishment against the DeRuyter Brothers Dairy for following the law at the time.

A bill in Olympia, SSB 5172, would make farmers pay again for work done three years ago, with 12% annual interest added on as a punishment. Any funds that could not be distributed to former employees by employers would be placed in an escrow account for six years while the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries attempted to locate the individuals involved in the claims. This is not a fix.

The original language of SSB 5172 — “the legislature intends to limit the retroactive effect of court decisions concerning overtime wage claims by delineating factors that establish inequitable results. When considering whether to award retroactive pay in a cause of action seeking overtime pay … the court is prohibited from making such an award when the award would create a substantially inequitable result” — acted as a protective mechanism for all overtime exempt employers; effectively banning lawsuits seeking retroactive payments. That is a fix. A fix for all overtime exempt employers, not just agricultural employers, because it wouldn’t punish employers for following the law.

As lawsuits pile up — more than 30 at last count — the rest of the agricultural community must entertain the very real possibility of paying time-and-a-half just as the dairy sector is doing now.

The prospect of retroactive pay creates an urgent existential crisis for the dairy sector in Washington state. Conservative estimates for the economic effect on the industry suggest it would cost our dairy producers $2 billion should nothing be done to stop this egregious injustice.

There is no more symbiotic relationship than the one between agricultural employers and their employees. It is based upon both parties working in harmony. Without farmworkers, farms would cease to be the cost-effective, efficient marvels they are in today’s economy. Without farms, farmworkers would cease to find themselves with reliable work at wages well above the state’s minimum wage.

Odd-numbered years are 105-day legislative marathons in Washington state. The long session is the saving grace for agriculture this time around. There is still time to negotiate, still time to make our voices and stories heard.

It is not the natural habit of farmers to discuss their business with the public. That is, in part, what got us into this mess in the first place. But it is absolutely essential that we put our habits aside and fight for our employees and our businesses by telling the truth about what we do.

Farmers and ranchers and their employees are a family, a community, and in this moment, when we need each other the most, we must make our voices heard and tell our individual and collective stories to anyone who will listen.

WA Policy Center: WA State Supreme Court Rules Dairy Overtime Exemption Is Unconstitutional

From the Washington Policy Center, Dairy workers could face layoffs after State Supreme Court ruling on overtime pay – court petitioned for reconsideration.

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled the overtime exemption for dairy workers was unconstitutional Nov. 5. Since then, it has been a scramble for dairy farmers and their employees to figure out what to do in the aftermath of a decision that could cost dairy farms up to $120 million for following what was the law at the time.

As previously discussed, the negative effects of this court decision will be felt most sharply by dairy workers themselves as their employers grapple with the potential costs of overtime pay moving forward, including layoffs and a reduction of hours.

The intervenors in the case, the Washington State Dairy Federation and the Washington Farm Bureau, have indicated they are petitioning the court for a reconsideration of their 5-4 ruling. The reconsideration puts the judgment on hold until that request is settled by the court.

However, dairy farmers are being advised to begin paying their employees overtime pay immediately.

Dairy farmers have been in an economic downturn for at least five years. This year was supposed to be a bright spot in an otherwise bleak market. However, with the onset of COVID restrictions and restaurant and school closures, milk prices have remained poor.

Now, dairy farmers must weigh one of three options: restrict all shifts to 40 hours or less, let some of their employees go, or cut the pay of their employees to offset the cost of paying time-and-a-half when their schedules eclipse 40 hours a week.

Dairy farmers have been advised by agriculture groups the fairest approach is to allow their employees to work their full schedule – approximately 55 hours a week on average – at an adjusted base rate. By maintaining the full work schedule, adjusting base hourly wages down (but not below the state minimum wage), and paying overtime at time-and-a-half, dairy employees will end up making slightly more money over the long-term.

The larger question mark for both dairy farmers, and the larger agricultural community, is the potential for retroactive compensation for dairy employees. Retroactive compensation opens dairy farmers up to be required to issue backpay to their employees for up to three years.

The key point of the retroactive compensation question is that it would punish dairy farmers for following the state’s constitution. The new figures for what retroactive compensation would look like in dollars is approximately $120 million, if assessed for three years, according to the Washington Dairy Federation. You can hear more from the Washington Dairy Federation here.

The bottom line is dairy workers and dairy farmers are put at risk by this lawsuit. Dairy farmers are being asked to make late-in-the-year budget shifts to cover the cost of overtime pay and, as a result, some dairy employees may find themselves looking for work as the holidays begin.

Medium: What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage

Will Oremus has written an article at Medium.com on What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage, pointing out that it has little to do with so-called hoarding. The fact is that people actually are using more toilet paper at home. There are similar problems with dairy products. With everyone staying at home and mostly eating at home, consumption of milk, butter, eggs, etc. is higher at home, now.

round the world, in countries afflicted with the coronavirus, stores are sold out of toilet paper. There have been shortages in Hong Kong, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. And we all know who to blame: hoarders and panic-buyers.

Well, not so fast.

Story after story explains the toilet paper outages as a sort of fluke of consumer irrationality. Unlike hand sanitizer, N95 masks, or hospital ventilators, they note, toilet paper serves no special function in a pandemic. Toilet paper manufacturers are cranking out the same supply as always. And it’s not like people are using the bathroom more often, right?

U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar summed up the paradox in a March 13 New York Times story: “Toilet paper is not an effective way to prevent getting the coronavirus, but they’re selling out.” The president of a paper manufacturer offered the consensus explanation: “You are not using more of it. You are just filling up your closet with it.”

Faced with this mystifying phenomenon, media outlets have turned to psychologists to explain why people are cramming their shelves with a household good that has nothing to do with the pandemic. Read the coverage and you’ll encounter all sorts of fascinating concepts, from “zero risk bias” to “anticipatory anxiety.” It’s “driven by fear” and a “herd mentality,” the BBC scolded. The libertarian Mises Institute took the opportunity to blame anti-gouging laws. The Atlantic published a short documentary harking back to the great toilet paper scare of 1973, which was driven by misinformation.

Most outlets agreed that the spike in demand would be short-lived, subsiding as soon as the hoarders were satiated.

No doubt there’s been some panic-buying, particularly once photos of empty store shelves began circulating on social media. There have also been a handful of documented cases of true hoarding. But you don’t need to assume that most consumers are greedy or irrational to understand how coronavirus would spur a surge in demand. And you can stop wondering where in the world people are storing all that Quilted Northern.

There’s another, entirely logical explanation for why stores have run out of toilet paper — one that has gone oddly overlooked in the vast majority of media coverage. It has nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with supply chains. It helps to explain why stores are still having trouble keeping it in stock, weeks after they started limiting how many a customer could purchase.

In short, the toilet paper industry is split into two, largely separate markets: commercial and consumer. The pandemic has shifted the lion’s share of demand to the latter. People actually do need to buy significantly more toilet paper during the pandemic — not because they’re making more trips to the bathroom, but because they’re making more of them at home. With some 75% of the U.S. population under stay-at-home orders, Americans are no longer using the restrooms at their workplace, in schools, at restaurants, at hotels, or in airports.

Georgia-Pacific, a leading toilet paper manufacturer based in Atlanta, estimates that the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual if all of its members are staying home around the clock…(continues)

Click here to read the entire article at Medium.com

Here is a video of a dairy farmer of Wagner Farms, talking about dairy item shortages and supply chains.

Reuters: U.S. Dairy Farmers Dump Milk as Pandemic Upends Food Markets

From Reuters news service comes a story that hits our region with a good number of dairies, U.S. dairy farmers dump milk as pandemic upends food markets

Dairy farmer Jason Leedle felt his stomach churn when he got the call on Tuesday evening.

“We need you to start dumping your milk,” said his contact from Dairy Farmers of America (DFA), the largest U.S. dairy cooperative.

Despite strong demand for basic foods like dairy products amid the coronavirus pandemic, the milk supply chain has seen a host of disruptions that are preventing dairy farmers from getting their products to market.

Mass closures of restaurants and schools have forced a sudden shift from those wholesale food-service markets to retail grocery stores, creating logistical and packaging nightmares for plants processing milk, butter and cheese. Trucking companies that haul dairy products are scrambling to get enough drivers as some who fear the virus have stopped working. And sales to major dairy export markets have dried up as the food-service sector largely shuts down globally.

The dairy industry’s woes signal broader problems in the global food supply chain, according to farmers, agricultural economists and food distributors. The dairy business got hit harder and earlier than other agricultural commodities because the products are highly perishable – milk can’t be frozen, like meat, or stuck in a silo, like grain.

Other food sectors, however, are also seeing disruptions worldwide as travel restrictions are limiting the workforce needed to plant, harvest and distribute fruits and vegetables, and a shortage of refrigerated containers and truck drivers have slowed the shipment of staples such as meat and grains in some places…

Click here to read the entire story at Reuters.

KIMA: Winter Storm Kills 1600 Dairy Cows in Region

From KIMA news. Stories of hardships caused by the recent storm continue to come:

YAKIMA, Wash.– Farmers have been devastated across the Yakima Valley, as strong winds of up to 80 miles per hour, and cold conditions have killed about 1,600 cows according to the Yakima Valley Dairy Farmers Association.

Yakima Valley Dairy Farmers are continuing to prepare as more snow is expected to hit the Valley, they’re adding extra bedding to insulate areas for cows to lay in, adding extra feed, and thawing water troughs with hot water.

“Without our employees, there’s no way we, or our cows could survive this storm,” Alyssa Haak , a dairy farmer in Prosser said. “To shield our cows from the wind we stacked straw bales to create a windbreak for our cows. I give a lot of credit to our milk truck drivers, too. Without their bravery, we wouldn’t be able to get our milk off the farm.”

Another farmer in Grandview says he’s been working around the clock to make sure his cows are being protected from the elements.

“These have been the worst few days of my life,” he said. “We’re just devastated. I don’t think we’ve ever been hit with weather like this.”

With severe winter weather continuing to occur in in eastern Washington throughout the next week, dairy farmers are assessing their current losses and preparing for the next round of snow and wind.

Farmers say that they are working together to help each other through these tough times.

Markus Rollinger, a Sunnyside dairy farmer stated, “Saturday was brutal. We put in a 36-hour day, but we’ve been fortunate. I’ve spent a lot of time helping my fellow dairy farmers and supporting what they’re going through,” Markus says. “My brother and I are trying to keep roads plowed for our employees and the milk trucks.”

Governor Inslee has declared a state of emergency for the state of Washington, which the farmers are hoping will lead to further assistance.

The dairy farmers say that they continue to cope with these conditions and over the next few days will be touch and go as they assess the damage and losses to their farm.