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Democratic New York state Assemblymembers slam new lower farmworker overtime threshold

Sheep on a farm in northern New York.
Pat Bradley
Sheep on a farm in northern New York.

Democrats held a press conference Tuesday criticizing the New York State Labor Commissioner’s order to lower the farmworker overtime threshold from 60 to 40 hours over a decade.

The order to phase-in a 40-hour week for farm workers by 2032 was issued Friday on recommendations made by the Farm Laborers Wage Board. It has raised the hackles of upstate farmers and many elected officials who claim it will hurt New York farms. Agricultural businesses will receive a series of state tax credits and reimbursements from the state to offset the added labor costs.

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher was the no vote on the three-member wage board, and says it will make it “tougher to farm in this state.”

113th District Assemblymember Carrie Woerner led an online press conference Tuesday with fellow upstate Democrats:

“Inflation is rampant, costs are up for everybody, and never no place more so than on farms," Woerner said. "The impact of rising feed costs, rising fertilizer costs, rising energy costs, rising fuel costs, are driving up the cost of operating a farm. And the thing about farms is, the farmers can't set their own prices.”

Woerner says farmers can’t control revenue as they fight rising costs because commodity prices are set on a nationwide basis.

109th district Assemblymember Pat Fahy says lawmakers set up three tax credits to make the transition easier for farms, including implementation of a refundable tax credit for overtime hours paid by farm employers.

“There's been a lot of work done on these tax credits, this has been a couple of years in the in the making," said Fahy. "But when a farmer, a small farmer is, when the cash flow is very, very tight, to wait six months or more for that that payment can be very, very difficult. But I know that that is one definition. And that is, I think it's $50,000 and less in gross income. And there's many thousands more that are $250,000 and less. I would leave that up to the to the governor's office. But the bottom line is, just as we do carveouts for small businesses, small landlords, small restaurants, small entrepreneurial programs, I think that that's something we're looking for here.”

New Scotland Town Supervisor Doug LaGrange is a former dairy farmer who says he was forced out by high costs.

"I don't think as a farmer, and a farm family and a business, you can expend the kind of money we're talking here at over 40 hours a week, and then get a small percentage of it back come April, if at all," LaGrnage said. "So though I appreciate the intent, there's no guarantees, there's no guarantees that would carry over from year to year. You folks know this being in the legislature, that not all things you know, stay forever. And something like that tax credit could get voted out next year for some reason."

Woerner says the new policy will end up diminishing the workforce, further imperiling smaller farms.

“We have farmworkers now who are getting paid to work 60 hours if the governor is correct, and this actually attracts more farmworkers to come to New York so that farmers can avoid the costly overtime," Woerner said. "What that means to those people who are working on farms is that they will take, over a 10 year period, a 30% pay cut. So the very people that this is intended to help, will, over 10 years take a 30% pay cut. So that being the case, would you come to New York to work on a farm?”

Republican Dave Catalfamo is running against Woerner for the 113th seat. He says the time to assess and address what he calls "a potential disaster" for New York's agricultural industry has passed.

“Independent researchers such as Cornell University is saying that, that this action is going to result in the closure of farms in New York state," said Catalfamo. "It's not enough to have a press conference the day after, you know, bad policies come down. If you're at the table for this, then you're supposed to affect it. And the fact of the matter is, is that upstate Democrats have been marginalized by New York City and their agenda. They just have. There’s no other way to, to articulate that. And so, you know, we need change in Albany.”

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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