How Oregon grape growers will navigate new overtime law

George Plaven
Capital Press

PORTLAND — As Oregon’s new agricultural overtime law begins taking effect in 2023, local winegrowers and vineyard managers say they face a challenge.
Labor for pruning, picking and other fieldwork is already scarce, and paying higher overtime wages is an added cost for an industry with already tight margins.
On the other hand, farmers know they need to treat their employees fairly if they want them to keep coming back.
A panel of producers discussed how they are adapting to new regulations while optimizing labor relations during the annual Oregon Wine Symposium on Feb. 14.
State lawmakers passed House Bill 4002 last year, which ends the longstanding agricultural overtime exemption and requires employers to pay farmworkers time-and-a-half for any hours above a certain threshold.
The law is being phased in over five years. In years one and two, agricultural overtime kicks in at 58 hours per workweek. Starting in 2025, the cap drops to 48 hours per week, and then down to 40 hours per week by 2027.
Madeleine Rowan-Davis, Oregon senior viticulturist for Atlas Vineyard Management, said overtime is just the latest labor hurdle facing agriculture.
“If we look at overtime as meaning fewer hours, then that means you have fewer hours and fewer people to get the work done,” Rowan-Davis said.
Rowan-Davis came to Oregon last year from California, which recently finished phasing in its agricultural overtime law.
California reached its 40-hour workweek for agricultural workers on Jan. 1, 2022. During the four-year rollout, Rowan-Davis said wages have increased, though the number of hours has gradually declined.
On average, Rowan-Davis said farmworkers in California are now working about 45 hours per week, versus 57 in Oregon.
“We’re still going to have a shortage of labor. We’re still going to have harvest that needs to happen,” she said. “Those are challenges that we’re all facing.”
However, Rowan-Davis said it is also important to consider why these overtime laws are being adopted.
Growers want to pay employees what they deserve so they can attract and retain the best workers, she said. There is a health and safety component, too, she added, since tired workers are more likely to make mistakes or get hurt on the job.
Atlas Vineyard Management typically pays workers a starting wage around $16 per hour, Rowan-Davis said. The company has experimented with piece rate pay or other incentives to get work done faster and avoid excessive overtime, though she cautioned that might not work for everyone.
“I wouldn’t recommend it as something to just jump into right off the bat without any thought,” she said. “Knowing your people — their strengths and weaknesses, and their needs — is going to play into all of that.”
Working faster might also mean a dip in quality, Rowan-Davis added. When it comes to pruning, she said growers will pay for poor quality later in the year.
“It puts a lot of pressure on your crew leaders,” she said.
David Nemarnik, vineyard manager at Alloro Vineyard near Sherwood, said he runs a three-person crew year-round to grow and harvest his roughly 36 acres of winegrapes.
The farm has invested quite a bit in automation, Nemarnik said, including electric pruners that have more than doubled production.
“That adds up,” he said. “The savings on that is amazing.”
Automated machinery can also cut down on repetitive motion injuries, Nemarnik said, particularly among older workers. With labor as scarce and precious as it is, he said winegrowers must be thinking about ways to make work more efficient and sustainable long-term.
“We need to take care of our folks,” Nemarnik said.