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Farmers Warn $15 Minimum Wage Unsustainable

Dairy cow
WAMC/Pat Bradley
Dairy cow

A number of groups have been warning of dire consequences should New York’s minimum wage be raised to $15 per hour.  The New York Farm Bureau held simultaneous press conferences across the state on Monday, contending the higher wage would negatively affect farms and the cost of food.
Governor Andrew Cuomo is making it a signature issue as the legislature moves toward budget and session completion.   “We’re going to get a $15 minimum wage passed.”

At a rally last week, the Democrat portrayed anyone against the idea as greedy.   “You know what’s fueling the opponents? They’re representing the corporations and the corporations don’t want to pay a higher wage. It is that simple.”

But the men standing behind a podium in Plattsburgh Monday are hardly wealthy corporate suits.  The farmers work dawn to dusk and beyond, tending to animals in the barn, plowing fields and dealing with state and federal paperwork.  These farmers’ income is based on fluctuating market demand and they say a 67 percent hike in what they must pay their employees would leave them few options.

Tony LaPierre (la-peer) runs the Rusty Creek dairy farm in Clinton County, milking 500 cows.  He employs eight full-time and four part-time individuals to produce milk.  If the state minimum wage rises to $15 per hour, he says, that cost can’t be passed on to the consumer.    “A third of our labor force milks cows and we’ve looked at robotics. And robotics would eliminate a third of our workforce.  So are we creating jobs here? I think not.  I think in order for us to try to survive in this environment we look for these kinds of options.  And to me as a small business owner I feel like we need to create jobs.”

Essex County Farm Bureau President Erik Leerkes has a partner, one full-time employee and hires up to three part-time individuals in the summer to work on his Ticonderoga farm.  He pays them more than the current state minimum wage but can’t afford the  proposed pay hike.   “With milk prices what they’re going to be this year, you’re going to see more farms close.  They already are closing all around us.  You know they may sound like a good idea in Albany or down in more urban areas where people make more money, but in the North Country we’re in tough economic times.  I would love to pay $15 to my employees. It’s just not reasonable.”

The farmers met at the Plattsburgh North Country Chamber of Commerce.  President and CEO Garry Douglas notes that the state is already incrementally increasing the minimum wage.   “So what’s the hurry? We’ve already got this increase going in January. Let’s take another year to really look at should it be regional? Let’s make sure we take a good look at sectors that function so differently than others like agriculture. Let’s take the time to make sure we do this right. Maybe by a year from now there’s going to be some more consensus around something that’s reasonable.”

A New York farm worker earns about $12.40 per hour.

An analysis by Farm Credit Eastestimates that a $15 minimum wage would result in agricultural labor costs rising between $387 and $622 million in 2021 when the wage rollout peaks and concludes that by that time nearly 2,000 farms would no longer be profitable. 

The Associated Press provided an update Tuesday evening:
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he's working on a plan to ensure farmers aren't negatively affected by his proposed $15 minimum wage.
The Democratic governor told reporters in Niagara Falls Tuesday that agriculture is different from other industries that would be covered by his proposed wage increase.
Cuomo didn't offer specifics about what he called a "special modification" for farmers. Possibilities range from giving farmers a tax break to offset higher labor costs to exempting them from the $15 wage entirely.
The proposed increase from the current $9 wage would be phased in over several years. Farmers, small business owners and many Republican lawmakers say the sharp increase will damage the economy.
Cuomo's minimum wage plan is a key part of negotiations with lawmakers ahead of the April 1 budget deadline.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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