The New York Department of Labor’s Farm Wage Board held three meetings in late December to determine if the overtime threshold for farm workers should be lowered. Their decision to wait at least a year was issued on New Year’s Eve.
New York’s Farm Workers Labor Law of 2019, which became effective January 1st, 2020, includes requirements to provide at least one day off per week; unemployment insurance coverage, paid family leave and the right to organize. The agriculture industry was also allowed to keep an exemption allowing 60 hours of work before overtime is paid. The new law required a wage board to determine if and when that overtime threshold could be lowered to 40 hours per week.
In a series of virtual meetings at the end of December the three board members offered their final deliberations. Board member David Fisher, President of the New York Farm Bureau, warned that a rapid change could negatively impact the industry. “There are often unintended consequences and sometimes serious ones. That’s why I’ve been asking right along for a pause for a few years in this to have farmers adjust and workers and and look at it again. We just need to be careful how fast we move on things like this.”
But former President of the New York State AFL-CIO Denis Hughes countered that the ag industry has long held exemptions to state labor laws. “We’re willing, at least from our point of view, the AFL-CIO point of view that over time, over a reasonable period of time we get to a 40 hour overtime requirement just like every other industry throughout the state of New York.”
Farms and their supply chains have been impacted by the pandemic.
La Casa de Leche dairy farm owner and Northeast Dairy Producers Association Vice Chair Keith Kimball watched the board’s virtual meetings. “If you look at agriculture in particular there’s so many variables that affect us on a year-to-year basis that no two years are the same. So this is going to take you know five years to understand what the impact is. The other thing is that the board has not been charged with ‘take this down to 40 hours’ and to hear them say that it was their responsibility to figure out how to get to 40 hours I thought was irresponsible. They’re supposed to evaluate how this has impacted both farms and employees and then make a recommendation to the state.”
During their third December meeting the board members met to vote on their final recommendation for reducing the overtime threshold. President of the Buffalo Urban League and board chair Brenda McDuffie offered the resolution. “Given the importance of food production in New York state and the extenuating circumstances and market disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic we find that additional data are needed to understand the impact of lowering the overtime threshold for farm laborers. I move that this board recommend that the overtime rates for farm laborers remain at 60 hours for at least one year.”
The resolution passed 2 to 1 with Hughes voting against it. The resolution includes a recommendation that the board be reconvened at the end of 2021 to reconsider the overtime threshold again.