Two Kittitas Valley farmers signed onto lawsuit to overturn the initiative to increase state minimum wage.
Brad Haberman, of Number 9 Hay, and Mark Charlton, of Charlton Farms, both signed onto a lawsuit filed in Kittitas County Superior Court in February. The lawsuit was sponsored by the Washington Farm Bureau and other business groups and headed by attorney Phil Talmadge. Haberman is a vice president of the Washington Farm Bureau. Haberman said he was concerned about the affect the minimum wage law would have on working farms.
“We try to hire on younger kids and teach them a skill in farming,” he said. “How to run equipment, how to irrigate and how to do all that. And to start with you got to be with them all the time and show them what to do and that is what the minimum wage was set up for.”
According to court documents the case was filed because there were two issues listed in the state initiative, a minimum wage increase and paid sick leave requirement. The Washington state constitution requires initiatives to be single issue. The case will be heard in superior court on April 21.
Initiative 1433 passed in 2016. It increases the minimum wage in stages starting at $11 in 2017 and reaching $13.50 by 2020. The bill also tied the minimum wage to inflation so it would increase with the cost of living. In addition the initiative required employees to provide at least 40 hours of paid sick leave, one hour for every 40 hours worked after 90 days on the job.
Haberman said the minimum wage was never meant to be a cost of living wage. Farmers like to hire younger workers and teach them a skill, but with a higher minimum wage they’ll have to look for people who are already trained.
“You’re paying them a wage to learn a skill so later on they can demand a higher wage because they have a skill,” he said.
Advocates for the initiative said the minimum wage should be linked to inflation, Haberman said. The problem with tying it to inflation is when the cost of living goes down the minimum wage doesn’t decrease as well.
“That upsets us, too,” he said. “Why do you say that is what you’re following when you’re not? You just get to a point where you’ve had enough.”
Haberman said there should be a cost of living wage and minimum wage. The minimum wage should apply for untrained workers who have not mastered their profession.
Commodity profit margins for farmers are razor thin said Mark Streuli, associate director of government relations with the Washington Farm Bureau. It has become a struggle for farmers to afford an adequate workforce to assist them and keep their farms alive.
“Especially as commodity prices are going down it is just that much more of a struggle for farmers out there,” Streuli said. “Especially when farms are trying to bring in workers who are coming in for their first job and learning a good work ethic.”
The Bureau also had concerns about the paid sick leave requirement, he said. Farms use a lot of seasonal workers and it was not clear how that would apply.
“Again it is the expense,” Streuli said. “This is a great example of why initiatives need to be one subject. Because you’re kind of held hostage even for the folks who would want to support the minimum wage.”
The bureau’s attorneys picked Kittitas County to file the lawsuit because of the initiative’s potential impact to the local farmers. It is important to keep farms alive because of their local value.
“We really want to keep agriculture going here in Washington,” Streuli said. “Sometimes it is just the little things really. I want my family eating Washington apples not apples from China.”
Farmers are price takers not price makers, he said. Even if commodity prices are hurt by an increase in the minimum wage farmers have to sell their crop within the margins dictated to them.
“It is hard, folks don’t always understand that,” Streuli said.