For years, advocates for farmworkers have lobbied to end exemptions to labor laws that exist on farms but with little success.
Since Democrats took control of the state Senate last fall, however, a new effort concerning farm interests introduced by Democratic legislators from Queens is gaining traction and bringing new hope to farmworker advocates.
After a series of hearings and informal meetings on the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act in April and May, another roundtable is scheduled for next week in Albany in anticipation of a vote.
Largely Republican Upstate legislators from rural districts stand against the bill, saying it would be devastating for farmers who are already hard-pressed to make a living in these times. Urban Democrats, who have traditionally stood in favor of labor protections, are supporting the bill.
“I’ve taken a very strong position in opposition to this bill because it hurts everybody,” said Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, a Republican whose district stretches from eastern Buffalo to western Rochester, including an agricultural swath through Genesee County. “It doesn’t pick winners or losers, farmers over farmworkers. It just hurts everybody who is involved in farming.”
While the two sides can argue about whether the bill’s requirements on unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation and a day of rest are needed given other state laws already in effect, they are most deeply divided on the issue of overtime.
The bill would require overtime after eight hours of work in a single day and after 40 hours in a week. Currently farm employers do not have to pay overtime to workers due to exemptions granted more than 70 years ago.
Opponents say the bill would require overtime in a way that no other job sector does, as overtime generally comes after a certain number of hours in a week are reached, not after a daily total.
Moreover, farmers and their supporter say they cannot afford to pay overtime, and if forced to do so will simply hire more workers to cover the extra hours at straight time to avoid having to pay time-and-a-half to their regular workers. A study on the subject by farm financer Farm Credit East estimated the total cost to New York’s farms would be $299 million annually.
Opponents argue that overtime requirements ultimately would hurt workers, many of whom are migrants who work as many hours as they can so they can send money back home to Mexico or other countries of origin.
Librada Paz, a former farmworker who lives in Brockport and is a nationally recognized advocate for farmworkers, said farmworkers who speak against the bill are doing so because their employers have said they’ll cut hours if they have to pay more after 40 hours.
“I’m kind of mad when farmers say ‘We’re not going to be able to do it,’ ” she said. Farms are businesses, she noted. “Why don’t you want to have a business mentality? Workers want more hours and definitely workers want more pay.”
But farmers have never had to adjust before to the idea of paying overtime. Paz said she’s confident that they’ll find a way to follow the law if it passes.
Others don’t share her confidence that farmers will be able to meet that larger payroll.
Steve Ammerman, manager of public affairs and associate director of the New York Farm Bureau, said, “It’s not that they don’t want to pay employees more, it’s that economic conditions are tying their hands.”
“The agricultural economy has been underwater for the last four years,” added Shelley Stein, an employee and part of the family that owns the Stein dairy farm in LeRoy. If the law passes as written, she said, the farm would see a 23 percent increase in labor costs, adding $200,000 a year to the $550,000 it pays now.
Farmers can’t just raise prices to cover higher wages, she said, because they aren’t in control of the prices on the products – milk especially – they produce. A federal market order sets the price of milk paid to farmers.
“They don’t know what they’re going to get for the milk until a month after the milk leaves the farms” said Ammerman, “If farmers aren’t able to recoup labor costs, they’re not going to be able to stay in business.”
Some state estimates suggest 20 percent of New York’s dairy farmers have gone out of business in recent years because of economic pressures, including lower prices they’re paid for milk and increases in the minimum wage.
Further, wages are already higher in New York for farm laborers, farm experts said. Ammerman said the average wage farmworkers are paid is about $14 an hour, several dollars over minimum wage in New York. And Stein noted that the minimum wage of $11.10 is also several dollars above what neighboring states have set as the minimum, putting New York farmers at a disadvantage. Pennsylvania’s minimum is so low, farmers could pay a minimum-wage worker overtime and still not pay as much as a New York employer would pay in straight time to a minimum-wage earner, she said.
Stein noted that workers on her farm, ranging from high schoolers who want to put in a single day of work on the weekend to full-time laborers and mechanics to college-educated herd managers, range from minimum wage to $22 an hour.
“There is such a tight labor market right now that as an employer you really do work with your staff to afford them what they are asking for. That’s part of a negotiation process,” she said. She added that such negotiations already happening on farms negate the need for a collective bargaining provision in the bill.
Paz said when farmers say they’re already taking care of their workers, she wonders why they aren’t then willing to put those practices into law.
Several bill opponents, for instance, say a day of rest is already standard on most farms. But Paz said she knows of dairy farmworkers who work day in and out on a schedule that requires them to work four hours, go off duty for three, go back on duty for four and so on around the clock. That worker never gets the chance to fully rest from work, she said.
Ranzenhofer said, “I acknowledge that there could be isolated instances where someone has not been treated properly,” but he added that in 11 years in the Senate, during which he has visited numerous farms, he has never seen what he considered to be abusive treatment of farmworkers.
“Well over 99.9 percent of farmers treat people with dignity and fairness,” Ranzenhofer said.
Central and Western New York farmers and their advocates have been unhappy with the bill’s process as well as its content because while three hearings were held outside of Albany, the closest to this area was more than 120 miles away.
“This is really the breadbasket for New York State in terms of agriculture,” Ranzenhofer said, noting his desire to have a hearing in his district or the Finger Lakes.
As a result of complaints, a roundtable discussion with farm interests did eventually happen in Batavia. Ranzenhofer also worked with Senate colleague Jessica Ramos, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, to have another meeting in Batavia with farmers and farmworkers. Ramos is a Democratic state senator representing parts of New York City. She met with a dozen farmers and more than 300 farmworkers.
Ramos, who also chairs the Senate’s Labor Committee, did not return a call for comment on the issue, and Ranzenhofer said he still doesn’t know what she will end up doing with the bill. But he believes she came away with a more accurate view of how farmworkers are treated today and the economic realities of agriculture.
Meanwhile, talks of compromise on the bill are possible. Stein even suggested she’d be OK on an overtime provision for farms if it started at 65 hours, reflecting a workweek more normal in agriculture.
If compromises happen, they could happen soon.
“There are indications it could move out of committee next week,” Ammerman said on Tuesday. The Farm Bureau will continue to talk with sponsors of the bill and key members of the legislature about making changes, he said. “We don’t know what that will look like or what the language will be,” he said.
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