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Farm workers angered after NY labor department delays action on 40-hour work week

Picture of a farm tractor
WAMC/Pat Bradley

New York’s Farm Laborers Wage Board bypassed a legal deadline of December 15 to decide whether farm workers should receive overtime pay after working 40 hours a week. The state Department of Labor says it will instead hold more hearings on the issue, beginning in January.

The state’s Labor Commissioner, Roberta Reardon, citing a law passed in 2019, last year ordered the Farm Laborers Wage Board to decide by December 15 of this year whether to implement a 40-hour work week for farm workers. The farm workers would be entitled to overtime if they worked more than that, similar to rules that apply to every other industry in the state.

But instead of issuing a ruling, the Labor Department announced more hearings to look into the issue. They will be held on January 4 and 18 and another date yet to be finalized.

That decision angered some farm workers and their union allies, who held a Zoom call to urge the Labor Department to move faster. Luis, a 17-year veteran of farm work who did not want to give his last name, says he and other workers don’t want to harm the state’s agricultural industry, but he says they deserve to be treated like other workers and receive overtime after 40 hours, and designated days off for rest. He spoke through an interpreter.

“We work in the cold and the heat. We work in extreme temperatures. We don’t complain when we’re working,” Luis said. “But we’re not machines that can just be replaced. We are essential workers.”

Stuart Appelbaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, says New York should follow the lead of other states, including Washington state, which have already successfully implemented a 40-hour work week.

“The truth is this: businesses adapt, the market adjusts. Consumers reward employers who treat their workers right, and business can survive and thrive,” Appelbaum said. “And the real truth is that we can’t afford to not to do right by farm workers. They deserve dignity and respect at work and that means just wages for their labor and that means overtime pay after a 40-hour work week, just like everybody else.”

Farm owners are pleased that there will be more time to debate the issue. Grow NY Farms, an advocacy group whose members include the New York Farm Bureau, says there’s wide support to keep the 60 hour limit for now, and that “lowering the overtime threshold would irreparably harm” the state’s food supply and agricultural diversity.

Earlier this month, farm owners who came to the Capitol said they are still struggling to accommodate the 60-hour work week limit, which was imposed at the beginning of 2020.

Peter Ten Eyck, whose family has owned Indian Ladder Farms in Albany County for generations, says farmers also work long hours alongside their hired workers, and their often slim profit margins mean that are also underpaid, compared to other types of work. He predicts that a quick transition to paying overtime after 40 hours will hasten the trend of small farms disappearing.

“There’s not enough profit or margins to be able to do that in the industry. We’re going to lose farms, the weaker ones first,” said Ten Eyck. “And then the big one will hit when young people are no longer going to go into farming because there’s not money in it.”

The farm owners cite a Cornell University study, commissioned by the state Labor Department and released in late November, that found nearly two-thirds of dairy farmers questioned say they would move out of milk production or end farming altogether if a 40-hour work week were enacted. Fruit and vegetable farmers surveyed say they would like to hire more owners to avoid paying overtime beyond 40 hours, but don’t think there’s enough potential workers in the existing labor pool and they’re unsure they could afford to build more housing to accommodate extra workers. Half say that they would close their farms as well.

69 farm workers who are employed under the H-2A federal immigrant worker program were also surveyed, and nearly three-quarters said they might not seek work in another state if farmers were to forgo paying overtime and cap their hours at 40 a week.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.