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American Thinker
American Thinker
22 Jul 2023
Andrea Widburg

NextImg:Washington State farm workers learn that the real minimum wage is zero

While individuals may be irrational, humans taken en masse respond rationally to incentives and disincentives. As Washington State’s farm workers are discovering, this applies with special force to economic principles. Leftist economic legislation always hurts most those who are the ostensible beneficiaries of its policies.

In Washington, the leftist legislature decided that it was unfair that seasonal farm workers don’t get time-and-half-pay when their work exceeds 40 hours a week. So, they mandated it. The law, passed in 2021, is phased: Last year, overtime kicked in at 55 hours per week; this year, it’s at 48 years per week; and next year, it will cover agricultural laborers who work more than 40 hours per week.

It sounds like such a decent thing to do. After all, as NPR reports, Jim Crow is why agricultural workers aren’t treated like other hourly workers in America. Or maybe the problem is that agricultural work isn’t like other work in America. Crops don’t follow a business calendar. Instead, they follow nature’s inexorable cycles, one of which is that, when crops are ready, if you don’t get them out of the fields immediately, they over bloom, rot, or die, making them valueless.

The urgency required to harvest crops is why farm work tends to be drought or deluge: It’s “all hands on deck” or nothing going on. And when it’s “all hands on deck,” farmers pay their field workers very well because they need those workers. The expectation in exchange for this pay is that the workers will put in whatever hours are needed to bring in the crop, not because the farmer demands it but because nature does.

Image by Pixlr AI.

However, if a farmer is already paying top dollar for a concentrated amount of labor, forcing him to add a 50% premium for “extra” hours (extra only in the context of office or factory jobs) drives the farmer’s costs up beyond what he can pay. From the same NPR article:

Farm owner [Alan] Schreiber is already feeling stretched.

"The economics are painful," he says while looking over his 165-acre farm in the lower Columbia Basin.

Especially for small farms like his. Close to a quarter of his acreage is asparagus, among the most costly crops to produce. Labor accounts for half of the costs, he says, in part because of how fast asparagus grows. When it's hot, spears can shoot up as much as nine inches in a day. Some days, an asparagus field needs to be cut twice.

"It is stoop labor. It's hard work," says Schreiber, who also serves as executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission. "No asparagus grower begrudges the wages that they pay because they know that it's hard work."

Skilled cutters can earn more than $30 an hour. If he were to pay 50% more for even some of the hours needed during the asparagus harvest, Schreiber is certain he would lose money.

After all, he says, he cannot raise his price on a box of asparagus by 50% just because it was cut on a Sunday.

Not only is nature a demanding taskmaster, but American farmers also compete with Latin American farmers who pay their workers “less in a day than Schreiber pays an hour.”

Faced with the legislature’s economic madness, Schreiber responded rationally:

For now, Schreiber has found a workaround. For the first time, he hired a labor contractor to bring in additional workers this year. Now, he's able to keep almost everyone to 48 hours a week and avoid paying overtime.

Schreiber is doing what many industries did when Obamacare demanded that they provide economically unfeasible health insurance coverage to part-time employees: They cut those employees’ hours even further and hired more low-hour employees. The business maintained its economic viability, and workers got shunted into lower-paying jobs without benefits.

Schreiber’s laborers, of course, aren’t happy:

During the April to June asparagus season, Mendoza used to work seven days a week, splitting her time between the asparagus fields and other tasks such as weeding, thinning and planting watermelon.

It was hard work and good money. Schreiber says workers could take home $1,400 a week.

"That was their best money for the whole year," he says. The earnings help sustain families through the winter when work dries up. But now, with workers capped at 48 hours a week, no one is even reaching $1,000.

Add Bidenflation to this madness, and the workers are falling into an ever deeper financial hole—all because the legislature, immured in their Marxist economic ignorance, decided to override the free market and nature’s cycles and to force irrational economic policies on farmers

NPR reports that Democrats have proposed solutions, all of which involve more economic meddling. Expect things to get worse before they get better, especially for consumers. The empty grocery store shelves that have persisted since 2020 will get worse.