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Advocates Slam Potential Changes to Farm Worker Overtime As Wage Board Hold Hearings

farm tractor in field
WAMC/Pat Bradley
farm tractor in field

New York’s Farm Workers Fair Laborers Practices Act mandates that all farmworkers, including foreign visa employees, receive overtime after working 60 hours in a week.  A wage board created as part of the legislation is now considering lowering the overtime threshold to 40 hours.  But some legislators and farmworkers say it’s too soon to make changes to a law that has been in effect for less than a year.
The law that mandates overtime kick in for farmworkers at 60 hours went into effect on January 1st.  It was controversial when considered by the state legislature with advocates saying workers were being taken advantage of and opponents, like Republican Senator George Borrello of the 57th District, saying New York City Democrats crafted an ill-conceived law without comprehending how farms operate.   “The concept behind this politically driven ill-conceived law tries to compare farm workers to workers in 9-5 jobs. But farming doesn't run on a 9-5 schedule. It often requires workers on the job sun-up to sundown, particularly during the peak season. Most farm workers want to work all the hours that they can work during the peak season and farmers need them to work those hours. Those workers that come here under the federal H2A guest worker program need to work as much as possible in New York’s short summer season in order to make enough money to support their families back home where work is hard to come by.”

Borello and other opponents of the new law held a virtual press conference in advance of a hearing held this week by the Farm Laborers Wage Board to consider lowering the overtime threshold to 40 hours. Senator Pam Helming, a Republican from Canandaigua, criticized the Wage Board for holding hearings during harvest - which she said reflects how oblivious they are about agricultural issues.  “Farms have not experienced a single complete planting or harvest season under this new overtime rate and COVID-19 has created so many new challenges for farms. So doing anything at this point without completely understanding what the economic impact is going to be on our farmers will significantly jeopardize farms. And I just want to mention too the ripple effect. The farms are supported by so many local businesses and that's going to impact sales tax revenues. So we need to if not repeal this legislation then we need to push back these hearings.”

Less than an hour after the senators and farmworkers discussed their concerns the Wage Board held its fourth public hearing on reducing the overtime threshold.  The majority of the 60 who provided testimony said more time is needed to collect data and no changes should be made now.  “My name is Joanna Lidback and I'm a manager at Adirondack Farms in Peru. The new overtime law has given us pause to rearrange schedules and cut back hours. We may look to more robotics and automation to use on our farm should the cost of employment become exorbitant.”

Worker Justice Center of New York Advocacy Director Emma Kreyche said the board must reduce the threshold to 40 hours.  “Human beings do not want to work 60, 70,80 hours plus per week. The second argument we hear is that agricultural businesses will simply fail as a result of increased labor costs. Here's the thing the system is already failing. I'm genuinely sympathetic to the plight of farmers operating with a thin profit margin. However I would urge them and lawmakers to focus their attention on advocating for serious public investments in agriculture instead of continuing to grow this industry on the backs of the most vulnerable among us.”

Written comments are being accepted by the Wage Board until October 31st.  Senator Borrello is sponsoring Senate Bill 8944 to extend the date the wage board must report to the governor and legislature from December 31st, 2020 to December 31, 2024 to allow data to be collected for four years on the financial impact and any potential changes to the federal guest worker program.