Listener Essay by Chris Pawelski

Jul 27, 2013

Recently, a regular WAMC commentator discussed the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. I disagreed with much of what I heard. As a fourth generation onion farmer from Orange County who has dealt with this issue and the actors behind it for the past 17 years, and whose family has employed and housed seasonal farmworkers for decades, allow me to detail what the facts are.

Roughly a dozen local, state and federal governmental agencies oversee a plethora of laws that govern both the living and working conditions of farmworkers in the state. In some cases, like the Migrant Seasonal Protection Act, these laws and protections apply exclusively to farmworkers. This makes them one of the most regulated and protected workforces in the state. Further, there are a wide range of government-funded social services programs, such as free daycare centers for their children and free healthcarecenters throughout the state as well as the free federal Migrant Education Program, that exist primarily, if not exclusively, for the farmworker community.

Factor in the free housing provided to most farmworkers, including free gas, electric and in many cases free cable or satellite TV service, and the average wage of $10 per hour, well, compared to their urban counterparts working on the same wage tier for a fast food restaurant, they are doing quite well.

What we are talking about are five or six exemptions to state labor law that match federal standards and apply to some other classes of workers. These exemptions include overtime pay, collective bargaining and a higher unemployment insurance level.

These exemptions exist because of agriculture’s unique production and marketing realities. Unlike California, New York has one relatively short growing season. Farm work for the most part does not take place in a building with a controlled environment. It’s governed by the weather and seasons. A large amount of work must be done quickly in a short period of time at planting and harvesting, or an entire season can be lost. I can’t stretch out the work or adjust schedules to shorten the workload during those periods. All I can do is lessen the amount of hours I provide during the growing part of the season, so as to afford the overtime before and after. This will lead to fewer overall hours and take home pay.

I have no problem defending the exemptions in that production reality context. But I can't, because the self-appointed advocates' mantra is that these exemptions are "immoral" and "unjust."

Who assigned these organizations the authority to decide what parts of our laws are "just” or not? Further, agriculture is not alone in regards to these handful of labor law exemptions. Other classes of employees, for example the employees of non-profits, including and especially religious non-profits, the very organizations primarily calling for the passage of this Act, are also exempt from overtime. So are the staff of the New York State Legislature. I’ve yet to hear the self-appointed advocates, like Rural and Migrant Ministry, call for the end of their exemptions while they pontificate about the supposed “injustice” of mine. The hypocrisy is astounding.

Farm work is hard, entry-level work. No one denies that. But no one forces a person to work on a farm. If someone wants the benefits associated with factory work, they are welcome to work in a factory. But to attempt to apply the rules associated with factory work to agriculture is foolish, if not dangerous, public policy.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.