Sunday, December 5, 2021

It Would Play Havoc with an Age-Old System:
Farmers protest move to slash OT hours by NYS Wage Board
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Hundreds of letters were hand-delivered Wednesday to the Executive Chamber to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office from anxious farmers and farm laborers pleading against the state Wage Board’s pending decision to lower the agricultural overtime threshold to 40 hours. The Wage Board must vote by Dec. 15, or within the next two weeks, to lower the current 60-hour threshold standards. Carlos Lopez, who works on a farm in the state, was one of hundreds of workers to write a letter to the governor to request the 60-hour agricultural work week remain intact.

“It gives us the opportunity to work longer and thus produce more money for our family here and our family at home apart from the farm,” Lopez wrote. Lopez’s letter was one of several letters written to the governor in Spanish. About 400 additional farm workers sent Hochul a letter by email to discourage lowering the threshold. Farmers and assemblymembers rallied at the Million Dollar Staircase in the state Capitol on Wednesday before delivering the letters, urging the Wage Board to reject the lower threshold they say would be financially detrimental to the industry.

“You don’t see any other business that has a 40-hour threshold giving people more than 37 hours, so that’s what we’re facing here,” said New York Farm Bureau Board of Directors Vice President Eric Ooms, who owns Ooms Farms in Kinderhook, Columbia County. Ooms’ dairy farm has installed robotics to milk their cows, but vegetable growers will not have the same luxury with fewer workers if the 40-hour work week passes, he said.

“When you go to the green markets in Manhattan or Westchester, there will be product there, but it’ll be from Pennsylvania and New Jersey and other states,” he added. “The reality is, we can’t keep having these increases. ...If you do things like this, you’re going to push people to grow more and more cash crops, which requires a fraction of the labor.”

Farmers said Wednesday labor unions have pushed to lower the overtime threshold to 40 hours to be comparable with other industries, and to address inequities burdening minority groups as most farm workers are undocumented people and people of color. Farmers Wednesday said the agricultural business mode has unpredictable factors that make it near-impossible to change, including perishability of crops and timeliness of selling products and varying work hours in a season depending on the climate and weather.

“You do your best to make hay when the sun shines,” said Brian Reeves, owner of Reeves Farms in Onondaga County. “Sometimes, there’s a little more sunshine this week and sometimes not next week, but you have to go when you have to go and the workers on our farms pretty much understand this, too.”

Farmers also do not get to dictate the prices for their product, Reeves said to explain why a 40-hour work week business model is not feasible for the industry, and would likely reduce the type of crops grown in New York that get sold on supermarket shelves. If approved, the overtime restriction and planned minimum wage hikes would result in a 42% increase in labor costs for small farms, according to a recent Farm Credit East report.

Many expressed concerns Wednesday that overtime restrictions would drive the already dwindling farm laborers to other states with more competitive work schedules. Officials and farmers did not know the date of the Wage Board’s vote or knew other details of the pending decision. The vote must take place on or before Dec. 15, but the board could be called to reconvene at any date.

“The Farm Laborers Wage Board recommended that the Wage Board be reconvened no later than Dec. 15, 2021,” state Labor Department spokesperson Deanna Cohen said in a statement Wednesday. “We will provide an update when we have one.”

Representatives with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office would not answer questions about the governor’s stance on the proposed increase or her response to the referred to the Labor Department’s statement. The current 60-hour threshold was established under the 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, and took effect in January 2020. Farmers and lawmakers were unclear on the details of how the 40-hour agricultural work week was proposed since the act, but said it came about quickly.

“Our farms and agribusinesses are at the mercy of the unpredictable forecast,” said Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, who formerly owned a dairy farm. “Differential rains means all hands on deck to save as many crops as possible ... demanding working ‘til after sundown to protect deals and prolong the growing season. We do a disservice to farms when we fail to recognize the unique circumstances faced by those in the sector.”

Several seasonal workers left the state after farmers reduced the number of hours available for employees in early 2020, financially injuring the workers the measure was intended to help, Tague said. Migrant farm workers are seeking employment to maximize their earning potential, he added.

“If the overtime threshold is lower, as fewer laborers are available to provide the scraps locally, the accessibility of your foods will continue to decline,” the assemblyman said. Assembly members Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake; and Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, also rallied Wednesday with the farmers. Jones was raised on a dairy farm and worked on a vegetable farm as a teenager and through college.

“They’re already paying more than almost any other state in the union for farm labor, so when you’re going out there and asking them when they have a very, very thin margin, to put one of these regulations on them, they’re just not going to do it — they just can’t do it,” Jones said. “This will be the death nail for many of our farms.”

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