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Farm Labor Wage Board hears testimony on proposed reduction in overtime threshold

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WAMC/Pat Bradley
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Farm tractor in field (file)

After missing a 2021 deadline to decide the issue, a wage board of the New York state Department of Labor has been meeting to determine if overtime rules for agricultural workers should be changed. Its latest meeting took more testimony on whether the state should retain the current 60-hour threshold or lower it.

Three hearings are being held this month by the Farm Labor Wage Board after it delayed a final decision last month on whether to change the overtime threshold.

At the first meeting this month New York Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon reviewed the charge of the board.

“The task of this reconvened Farm Laborers Wage Board is narrowly focused on the issue of overtime. While you can recommend that the overtime threshold be reduced you cannot recommend an increase in the threshold which is currently set at 60 hours.”

In October, Farm Credit East issued an analysis on the economic impact of overtime pay. Knowledge Exchange Group Director Chris Laughton said the analysis found farm production costs would increase significantly if the overtime threshold is lowered.

“While the board may be narrowly focused on the matter of the overtime threshold our analysis shows that the increase in overtime costs has to be considered in conjunction with other factors such as recent increases in the minimum wage. Related expenses such as payroll taxes and workers’ compensation costs have also increased accordingly,” said Laughton. “Taken together the combination of overtime and wage increases is estimated to increase farm labor costs by $264 million per year, or 42 percent, should the threshold be reduced from 60 to 40 hours. And we estimate a 20 percent reduction in farm income from these increased labor costs due to overtime on top of minimum wage increases.”

Most testimony came from the agriculture sector, which warned lowering the overtime threshold not only threatens individual farms but the state’s agriculture industry.

High school teacher Zachary Makuch was raised on a dairy farm and currently teaches an introduction to agriculture class. He opposes lowering the overtime threshold.

“I completely understand the calls for lowering the threshold because of calls for equality. However small farms are not on an equal playing field with larger farms. Today massive farms have grown increasingly larger while small farms disappear. Maintaining the threshold may not be equal, but it is equitable.”

A few farmers testified in favor of lowering the threshold. Among them was Laura Colligan, owner of a certified organic vegetable farm in Erie County called Dirt Rich Farm.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that, as I understand it, the root of the discussion today is not Mother Nature but the fact that people who work on farms were excluded from overtime protections in the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 at the insistence of openly racist southern state senators. It’s been 84 years. Time to move past this embarrassing legacy and towards giving farm employees the same overtime protections that all other workers enjoy.” Colligan added, “There will always be those who say that the economic conditions make lowering the overtime threshold impossible for farmers. Other industries like retail have figured out how to run businesses that have labor needs that vary seasonally while operating under a 40 hour overtime threshold. Agriculture can too.”

The three member farm wage board will hold two more virtual meetings on January 18th and January 20th, both beginning at 5 p.m.

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