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Farm Advocates Concerned About Impact of Farm Worker Bill On Small Farms

farm tractor in field
WAMC/Pat Bradley

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo this week signed the Farm Workers Bill, which establishes worker rights and labor protections.  While the governor calls it a great achievement, farm advocates say it threatens family farm operations and won’t necessarily help workers.
The new law establishes the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which mandates overtime pay, a day of rest each week, disability and Paid Family Leave coverage, unemployment benefits and other labor protections.  As he signed the bill Wednesday, Governor Cuomo, a Democrat, said injustices toward farm workers will be a thing of the past.  "One hundred thousand farmworkers will have better lives. Their families will better lives.”

But some worry whether small farms can afford to operate under the auspices of the bill. Grow New York Farms spokesman Paul Larabee says the bill’s outcome may not be the panacea supporters expect.  “In some ways the legislation that ultimately was passed is hurting the very people it was intended to help. In fact some of the workers are going to lose hours as a result of a requirement to pay overtime. The workers on the farms, who are here for a short duration of time, and they want to work as many hours as possible. That puts the farmer in a very difficult position because he is unable to sustain an overtime wage that is excessive. It may result in some workers either not getting the hours they need, the farmers being uncompetitive or losing workers to another state because opportunity is greater.”

Grow New York Farms worked with the New York Farm Bureau and legislators to make revisions in the bill.  But the version signed by the governor, according to Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman, has some major problems that will make it very difficult on the farm community and economy.  “We’ve had some farmers tell us I probably will not survive this. I can’t absorb these costs. I know my employees are going to be wanting more hours than I will be able to provide them because of the new overtime requirement.  I’m afraid I’m going to lose my employees and it’ll be harder to attract new ones.  There’s really a lot of worry in the farm community right now and real concerns at how this is going to impact the overall rural economy. Our farms value their employees. They want to provide them good opportunities and good benefits and make sure that they remain valuable team members on their farm. But it comes down to the economics and for some farms they say they will not be able to survive this.”

Tony LaPierre owns a dairy farm in Chazy, north of Plattsburgh.  He says they have some employees originally from Latin America who work for a few months and put in 60 hours or more a week.  “The gentlemen that work for us at the moment, we have three, they work 60 plus hours a week on purpose. Their sole purpose is to make money for their family back home and for when they get back.”

LaPierre believes the new law will lead to reduced hours for his current employees, lower overall wages and result in higher costs for the farm.  “We’re going to have to manage it with hiring on more people. That’s going to increase costs.  More people means more costs as far as workman’s comp, insurances, so on and so forth.”

The bill takes effect January 1, 2020.