A state wage board is considering lowering the current 60-hour-per-week overtime threshold in New York's Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which took effect at the start of this year. Monday morning, Republicans within the State Senate and owners of farms across the state warned that doing so could, in the words of one speaker, "plow many businesses under."
The act was passed in July 2019 and took, effect New Year's Day. The 60-hour-per-week limit before time-and-a-half wages are required is the first overtime ever provided to New York's farmers and farm workers.
The Farm Laborers Wage Board is considering lowering the overtime threshold and, last week, hosted the first of three planned virtual meetings to receive input. Buffalo Urban League president Brenda McDuffie, who chairs the wage panel, stated during that meeting she and her peers have until December 31 to issue a recommendation and that no decision has yet been made.
Senate Republicans including George Borrello, however, say even more time is needed to measure the economic impact of the Act on the state's farms. He is sponsoring a bill which would require the Farm Labor Wage Board collect data through 2024, thus delaying any action on lowering the overtime threshold in the shorter term.
Farm labor, he explained, is not the typical nine-to-five, year-round position.
"It often requires workers on the job, sunup to sundown, particularly during the peak season. Most farm workers want to work all the hours that they can work during the peak season, and farmers need them to work those hours," he said. "Those workers that come here under the federal H-2A guest worker program need to work as much as possible in New York's short summer season, in order to make enough money to support their families back home, where work is hard to come by.”
Borrello's 57th Senate District covers the Southern Tier, a vast majority of which is rural. Senator Robert Ortt says the districts represented by Republicans are mostly rural.
"We speak from a position of knowledge, and a long standing relationship, and advocacy for the people who grow our food. This is the number one economic industry in the State of New York," said Ortt, a Niagara County Republican. "And it is struggling, like every industry is struggling now, even more during this pandemic. And to do this wage board at this moment is so tone deaf."
Farm owners speaking Monday say the migrant workers they employ depend on the 60-hour work weeks to raise money they send home. They fear a lowered overtime threshold would result in rising costs, and could perhaps mean less work for many farm workers.
Dale Hemminger, is owner of Hemdale Farms in Ontario County, which produces milk and cabbage. He says further cost increases will raise the risk of New York farms losing laborers to other states, and facing more competitive disadvantages when their products go to market.
"Before the labor bill, the agricultural cost structure in New York State was already at a competitive disadvantage to other farming areas," Hemminger said. "My perspective, as both a lifetime farmer and director of a community bank, is that if overtime regulations are lowered, on top of the recently enacted farm worker bill, I am sure that New York farms that have labor dependent commodities would not be able to recover from the increased expense.”
Borrello says most of New York's farms are family-owned, and already face challenges including a higher state minimum wage, trade deals which adversely affected commodity prices, and most recently the pandemic. The latter, he added, raised the reliance on locally-grown food.
"Now more than ever, people want food that is safe, fresh and local," he said. "Discussions about strengthening our local food supply chains are taking place at every level of government. The Farm Labor Law threatens to undermine those efforts, which is why it should be repealed. But, but our most urgent responsibility right now is to prevent further damage by delaying any decision on the 60-hour threshold until 2024."