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Worker Justice Center of New York cheers farmworker overtime change

Picture of a farm tractor
WAMC/Pat Bradley
A farm tractor.

New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon has accepted a recommendation by the Farm Laborers Wage Board to lower the farmworker overtime threshold from 60 to 40 hours per week. The order follows years of debate and a 2-to-1 vote by the body in September. The change will be phased-in over a decade. Advocates say it’s overdue, but some elected officials from both parties and agricultural groups oppose the move, saying it will decimate small farms. Emma Kreyche is with the Worker Justice Center of New York, which advocated for the change.

What was your initial reaction to word that the Labor Commissioner had ordered this change to go into effect?

Well, my organization, of course, is very pleased with this decision. We have been working on this issue for many years, both through the legislative process and now for the past two and a half years through the wage board process, which of course, was delayed through the pandemic. So, we are very happy with this announcement. It is both the right thing to do by farmworkers and there are several measures that have been put in place that I think will help to ensure that there is no adverse impact on small farms.

What effect will it have on farmworkers?

Well, for farm workers who are routinely working between 40 and 60 and upwards hours per week, it will increase their take home pay will recognize the value of their labor and the sacrifices they make when they put in long hours at jobs that we consider essential and it will also ensure that workers who make the sacrifice to put their health and safety at risk by working long hours, by sacrificing time with their families, it will provide a recognition of that sacrifice. And of course, it will put them on equal footing with workers and other industries. That's all we've been asking for all these years is equity.

Is there a concern that some farm workers may lose their jobs because certain farms don't want to pay that overtime rate?

Well, one of the things that has come along with this decision is a tax credit that the state will be providing to farm owners to absorb any additional labor costs associated with the overtime rule. So, if workers are working between 40 and 60 hours a week and their employers incur additional labor costs, they will be credited at 118%, so even more than the overtime cost directly. So, there would be no reason why employers would need to cut back hours or reduce hours to avoid paying the overtime rate, this tax credit really does address that issue, which is one of the concerns that we heard throughout the wage board process.

Do we know how many people will be affected by this change? How many workers we're actually talking about?

It's hard to know, you know, estimates of the number of agricultural workers vary pretty widely. You know, we tend to estimate it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 workers that work in agriculture. Of course, not all of them necessarily work over 40 hours a week. But it is very common for agricultural workers to put in, you know, upwards of 40, 50, 60. We've heard of workers working as many as 80 hours or more a week. And it's especially true on dairy farms, which of course, represents one of the largest sectors within agriculture. Dairy workers do routinely work 12-hour shifts, six days a week. So, they are among those who stand to benefit the most from this law, from this new rule, rather, and you know, these are year-round workers. These are not migrant seasonal workers. These are people who work around the clock, around the year, throughout the year.

Now, this change is going to take effect over a decade. Every other year, that overtime threshold will lower by four hours until it gets down to the 40-hour mark. What do you see as next steps as this process continues to roll out?

Well, I think for us, a big part of our work will be sharing information with the community that's affected. We do a lot of outreach to farm workers, directly on farms and in other community events. So, we will be working hard to inform farm workers about the phase in process. It is confusing, the minimum wage has changed, of course, and with the overtime threshold changing, it's all that much more important for workers to really understand what they are entitled to under the law and also be sure that they understand how to track their hours. You know, many employers provides pay stubs, but many do not, or they do not keep accurate records. So, we will need to be working with communities to ensure that they understand both how they should be paid and how they can ensure that their rights are respected. I mean, getting a law passed or getting a rule implemented is only half the battle, we really do have to focus on oversight and enforcement. And, you know, holding employers accountable to this new overtime rule.

New York state is not the first over the line here. Are you learning anything from this process in California and Washington, states that have already moved their overtime threshold down?

Yeah, and in fact, the Immigration Research Initiative has provided some analysis of how this has played out in other states. We have not seen the concerns that have been expressed by the agricultural industry play out as, as many fear, we have not seen a dramatic increase in costs. We have not seen dramatic changes to the sector. And, you know, the changes that are occurring are ones that we see as positive, right? Farmworkers have been waiting since the 1930s to be treated with equity under the law. It's long past time. And I'm glad that New York is now among the states that will be providing overtime pay after 40 hours.

Given the fact that the state is going to reimburse the farms, which as you say, oppose this change, where do you think the opposition came from? What is this really about?

I am frankly baffled by the continued opposition to the overtime rule. Once the tax credit was announced, you know, it's very clear to me that the substantial economic concerns had been addressed. I don't know what more could be done to alleviate those concerns. It really does feel pretty inexplicable to me why employers would continue to oppose this rule when there will be no substantial cost increase to them.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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