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New labor law causing anxiety on N.Y. farms

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the Farmworkers Bill into law last week, farmworker advocates were cheered, and many farmers were seriously dismayed.

The new law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020, and would require overtime pay for workers after 60 hours of straight time, a required day off, a review panel for labor disputes, and the right to bargain collectively.

Farmworkers had been exempted when labor protections were widely adopted in the 1940s. As a result, it’s not uncommon for farmworkers to compile 80 or more hours a week, with all those hours paid at straight time. Average farmworker pay is about $14 an hour.

Cuomo pronounced the new law “not just a great achievement in terms of the effect on the human condition, it’s also a milestone in the crusade for social justice. It truly is a moment for reflection and celebration. First, as a practical matter, 100,000 farmworkers will have better lives. Their families will have better lives. They will finally, finally have the same protections that other workers have had for 80 years.”

Farm owners had continued to argue against this bill and others like it for years by saying that farm work just doesn’t conform to the kind of conditions and economics governing other kinds of work.  Crops ripen all at once, requiring lengthy working days until the harvest is in. Cows require milking two, three or four times a day on a schedule more attuned to their individual eating patterns and biorhythms than a standard work shift.

Advocates, meanwhile, had argued that workers deserve job protection and a day of rest just like anyone else, perhaps more so, given the physical nature of the work. Librada Paz of Brockport, a former farmworker who is a nationally recognized advocate for workers, said many farmworkers don’t see doctors because they have no provisions to take time off for a medical appointment.

Paz is a board member of the Rural Migrant Ministries agency and attended the governor’s signing of the bill into law. She said organizations like RMM will have to help educate farmworkers about their new rights.

“A lot of the places don’t give breaks,” Paz said. “We have to really go after this. People have their right to have their breaks. We have to teach them this new law.”

The impact of the law remains to be seen, with many farmers claiming it will be yet another factor pushing them out of business. And advocates for farmworkers say it’s a great first step, but additional measures are needed.

“Who’s going to be most hard hit is going to be folks who produce more labor-intensive product,” such as milk, fruits and vegetables, said John Sorbello, of Scottsville, Ontario County, and  Region 3 director of the New York State Farm Bureau. Some farms may elect to move from those types of farming to commodity crops such as soybeans because they can do so with less hired help, he said.

Sorbello said the Farm Bureau and other organizations moved the needle on overtime so that it doesn’t kick in until 60 hours, 20 hours later than most other workers.  Collective bargaining doesn’t worry him so much, he said, as the failure to include a no-strike clause in the law. Without it, he said, a strike could endanger milking cows, or destroy a crop.

He also was disappointed that the new law’s definition of a family farm – there are some exemptions for family farms – was limited to a nuclear family unit rather than groups of close relatives including nephews or cousins.

Many farmers have been arguing that the requirement to pay overtime will now force them to limit their employees’ hours to 60 a week, making up for the extra hours by hiring additional laborers at straight time.

“The first answer is we’ll hire more people. If the people are not available that could be a real issue,” Sorbello said. While many migrant farmworkers are uneducated, he said, they’re still smart; They will choose to work in a state where they can have unlimited hours.

If farmers are required to pay overtime, bringing pay rates to about $20 an hour, Sorbello said, they won’t be able to price their products competitively with states that are only required to pay a minimum wage that’s much lower. The prices growers can command for vegetables and fruits are often set by processors whose headquarters are out of state, Sorbello noted, and dairy prices are set nationally in a complicated formula that won’t take into account rising labor costs in New York.

Sarah Dressel, an apple grower in New Paltz, Ulster County, and chairwoman of the New York Apple Association’s board of directors, said in a statement that “the massive increase in labor costs coming down the pike because of this new law will make it difficult to sustain the business that has lasted for generations….I’m afraid this could be the breaking point for our orchard and many like ours across the state.”

Advocates suggest farm owners might be crying wolf.

“At the same time that farm owners are saying that agricultural industry is on the brink and it’s very difficult, there’s been huge growth and profit in the last few years,” said John Marsella, senior attorney with Workers Justice Center of New York in Rochester. “It’s important for our laws to protect some of the most marginalized individuals who participate in this economy.”

Paz said the new law will take some getting used to on both sides. “The problem is that farmers were so used to working the way they were working,” she said. “They’re going to have to find a way to adjust.” She predicted larger operations, those with 100 or more employees, will feel the most impact.

Marsella said a recent state appellate court ruling found exempting farmworkers from labor protections others enjoyed was a violation of the state constitution. That paved the way for the Farmworker Bill to finally win approval.

“We’re really leaders in many areas of agriculture across the country,” Marsella said. “New York serves as leaders in the protection of the most vulnerable workers. I’m proud of the state of New York and proud of the politicians who made this happen.”

It was downstate politicians who led the charge this time around, with two legislators from Queens filing the bill some months ago. Upstate legislators largely opposed it, saying it would harm rural economies.

“It should be named the Farmworkers Flee New York Act because it is simply more job-killing regulation, unrealistic for our small and large farms,” said state Sen. Pamela Helming, R-Canandaigua. “This is what happens when New York City, a place that enjoys farmers markets but not farms, tries to legislate a business that they do not understand.”

Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, R-Lyons, declared he was “outraged” when the bill passed the state legislature in June, and predicted it will “drive more families out of New York and businesses to close.”

Paz said the bill was a matter of human rights and dignity, and if farmers respect their workers as they often say they do, they should be willing to shoulder the true costs of operating a business.

Earning the right to bargain collectively to improve work conditions is just one step in the process of improving work conditions, Marsella noted.  Farm owners have no reason to worry about a labor shortage if they’re treating their employees well, he said.

“The people who stay or are happy are ones who feel they’re treated with dignity and respect and get a fair wage.”  Marsella said, “Far too often we see instances of discrimination, unpaid wages, housing violations and unsafe working conditions.”

The new law, he said, “is an important step in the right direction, that more individuals are able to participate in success of this booming agricultural industry.”

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