State Rep. Mark Owens eyes ag overtime bill as short session nears

Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, is watching out for legislation that could affect farmers in his district. (Enterprise file photo)

VALE – State Rep. Mark Owens said he is concerned an effort to require farmers to pay agriculture workers overtime wages will once again be on the docket when lawmakers meet in February.

The Oregon Legislature is scheduled to meet Feb. 1 for its so-called short session. 

Early in the 2021 session, lawmakers introduced House Bill 2358 A, designed to require employers to pay agriculture owners overtime wages for work in excess of 40 hours in a week. 

The bill was sponsored by House Democrats and withstood two public hearings and but stalled in the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 mandated a minimum wage and overtime pay but some groups of agriculture employees were exempted.

Proponents insisted the proposed Oregon legislation was a matter of fairness and the exclusion of farm workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act was rooted in racism. 

Supporters of the bills also contended big farm operations can afford overtime and farm workers are exploited and underpaid.

Opponents believe paying overtime wages to farm workers will damage farmers because of added costs and compel them to limit the number of hours their workers are on the job. 

“Consumers set our prices and will buy from other states or countries that sell at a cheaper price. I will have to absorb the added overhead,” said Paul Skeen, a local onion farmer and the president of the Malheur County Onion Association during a legislative hearing in March 2021.

Owens said he opposes any such legislation. He said farmers in his district are already operating on thin profit margins.

Owens said he believes the focus should be on finding a middle ground where each side benefits.

“There are opportunities for labor and operators to make good money without excessive overtime,” said Owens.

Owens said he believes all workers should have adequate pay but is worried an overtime mandate will hasten the transformation to mechanized farming.

“We will continue to trend toward replacing labor,” said Owens.

If some type of overtime mandate is ratified by lawmakers, farmers might limit farmworkers to 40 hours a week to avoid costs.

“So, it will be detrimental to the migrant workforce. They won’t make the money they were making,” said Owens.

Paying overtime wages to farm workers will boost the economy, according to testimony from Jessica Maravilla, policy director for Causa Oregon, a Latino advocacy group.

“With better wages, there will be an increase in consumer spending, especially in local businesses and rural communities,” Maravilla wrote in March 2021 legislative testimony.

Another concern for Owens revolves around the power of the governor.

Owens said he is proposing to amend the Oregon Constitution to limit the ability of the governor to declare an emergency for more than 30 days. 

After 30 days, individual county governments would decide whether to extend the emergency, end it or modify it.

“During the declaration, the governor needs to state what the emergency is and what counties it affects,” said Owens. 

Owens said his bill will “bring control back to the local level.”

Amending the Constitution would require a statewide vote.

“I am not asking the Legislature to take the power away. I am asking legislators to put it to a vote of the people,” said Owens.

Owens said he is also concerned about lack of access to the Legislature by voters because of the Covid pandemic. The Capitol was closed to the public and most hearings were conducted virtually.

“We need to get back to the Capitol being open and allow meaningful conversations to occur in person,” said Owens.

Owens said he worries the new omicron variant of the infection will once again shut out Oregonians during the legislative session.

“We have tools we can use. CDC guidelines seem to be just fine for restaurants and grocery stores so the Capitol should not be handled any different than any other public place. It is not a private business,” said Owens.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

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