The New York State legislature is approving new protections for farmworkers that supporters say are long overdue. The measures give farmworkers the right to receive overtime pay of one-and-a-half times their regular wages after they have worked more than 60 hours in a week.
They also now have the right to one full day of rest per week, will be eligible for unemployment insurance and workers compensation coverage and will be granted the right to organize to join a union and to collectively bargain.
Assemblymember Stephen Hawley (R-Batavia), comes from a long line of farmers. He predicts the new requirements will be too onerous and that farms will close and farmers will leave the state and "they will be gone, another industry out of the state of New York,“ Hawley said. “It will be in the nail in the coffin that puts my grandfather to rolling in his grave.”
However, Sen. Chris Jacobs (R-Buffalo) criticized the passing, saying it would cause “irreparable harm to the state’s already fragile agriculture industry.”
“Adding $300 million in operating costs on to the backs of New York’s farmers is anything but fair,” Jacobs said. “Nor is it fair to the suppliers and other industries dependent on a thriving agriculture economy and, in reality, it is even more unfair to the very farm workers the supporters of this bill claim to want to help.”
A coalition of farm groups, including the New York Farm Bureau, New York State Vegetable Growers Association and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, oppose the measure, saying it will reduce farmworker hours and wages because farmers cannot afford to pay overtime, and could even lead to a “dissatisfied and unstable” workforce that could compromise the welfare of farm animals and crops..
Bill sponsor Cathy Nolan (D-Queens) says other states, including California, have enacted wage and work hour protections for farmworkers and have permitted them to collectively bargain for many years. She says that has not deterred that state from being the leader in the agricultural industry. In New York, she says, it might even lead to increased sales of farm products.
“I think many of us will feel better about that, knowing that the hand that picked that apple was given a fair shot of being in a union and having collective bargaining rights,” said Nolan, “as all other workers do.”
Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who was born in Columbia and immigrated to the United States, says many of the farmworkers are African American or Lantinx. She says when she worked as an advocate for farmworkers, she saw many who lived in substandard housing and were overworked treated as “second class citizens” and “less than human.” She says the state is finally righting a wrong that occurred in the 1930’s when farmworkers were left out of the federal fair labor act.
“And put an end to the last vestiges of the Jim Crow era,” Cruz said.
The Justice for Farmworkers Coalition, which lobbied for years for the bill, said in a statement that “justice will finally be served.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he will sign the measure.
"With the passage of this legislation, we will help ensure every farmworker receives the overtime pay and fair working conditions they deserve," Cuomo said in a statement. "The constitutional principles of equality, fairness and due process should apply to all of us."
WBFO's Marian Hetherly contributed to this story.