State OKs landmark farm labor rights bill

File PhotoThe Workers’ Center of Central New York, Syracuse, started a petition supporting two employees who say they lost their jobs in September after standing up for their rights at Marks Farms in the town of Lowville. Supporting the cause at the New York State Fair in Syracuse are, from left, Saul Pinto and Crispin Hernandez, former workers at Marks Farms, and Brian Escobar, a volunteer for the group.

On the last day of the 2019 session, the New York State Legislature passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act.

The bill, S6578/ A8419 passed in the Assembly by an unofficial vote of 84-51, after several hours of testimony from supporters and opponents on Wednesday afternoon. The state Senate then passed the bill just before 10 p.m. with an unofficial vote of 40-22.

“Farmworkers have had justice denied for 80 years and the -FFLPA has languished in the Senate for 20 years. History is made today for the hundreds of thousands of farmworkers across NY. Si se pudo!” tweeted Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-Queens, the Senate sponsor of the bill, shortly after its passage.

The bill provides for the right of farmworkers to collectively organize, although not to strike, to collect overtime pay after 60 hours of work, and for a full day off per week, with the option to work during the day of rest at one and a half times their normal hourly rate of pay.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sent out a news release shortly after 10 p.m. praising passage of the bill.

“Over the weekend, I issued a reformed farmworkers bill of rights which guarantees farmworkers will finally be granted basic rights to protect them from abusive and exploitative working conditions,” read the statement from Gov. Cuomo. “With the passage of this legislation, we will help ensure every farmworker receives the overtime pay and fair working conditions they deserve. The constitutional principles of equality, fairness and due process should apply to all of us.”

The bill was opposed by north country Assemblymen Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, and Ken Blankenbush, R-Black River, who both sent out statements condemning it; a vote breakdown by legislator was not immediately available for either the Assembly or Senate.

“The Farm Worker Labor Bill will devastate some of our farms that are already struggling. As countless farmers are trying to cope with low milk checks, extreme weather conditions that make planting crops difficult and more red tape that makes doing business of any kind in the state near impossible,” Mr. Walczyk said in a statement. “While I understand the rationale of those in support of this bill, the sponsors of the legislation demonstrated an ignorance about farming and our way of life Upstate.”

Mr. Blankenbush concurred.

“New York City Democrats delivered a gift to the politically-connected labor unions that fund their campaigns,” Mr. Blankenbush said in a statement, “The fact that Democrats refused to pass legislation to help our farmers get back on their feet is alarming. The fact that Democrats passed legislation that kicks them while they’re down is disgusting.”

Lisa Zucker, legislative attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the final bill has some significant concessions from farmworkers, as well as some victories.

“There were big compromises here, including the 60 hours, that was the big one, and giving up the right to strike,” she said.

The wins for farmworkers — from disability insurance and workers compensation to overtime pay — are largely protections that other New York workers have had for some time.

“Farmworkers were excluded from the basic law,” Ms. Zucker said. “Now they’re getting on board with true equality.”

Steve Ammerman, Farm Bureau manager of public affairs, said that the New York Farm Bureau had been working with the bill sponsors over the weekend to make a compromise bill, but language added on Sunday made it unacceptable.

The Farm Bureau joined in a joint statement on Wednesday with Grow NY Farms, a coalition of farm groups, opposing the amended bill.

“We are appreciative of the leadership and support from Senate and Assembly legislators who worked tirelessly to find this path forward while keeping our New York agriculture industry in business,” the statement reads. “On this last day of the state legislative session, we unfortunately announce that our work is incomplete and does not receive our endorsement. The Senate and Assembly bill that will be debated today does not create a path that will assure an economically viable New York agriculture industry.”

The four specific complaints involved the timeline and composition of a wage board, a limited definition of family, who are exempted from the regulations, requiring overtime wages if a worker chooses to work on their day of rest and the lack of a mandated secret ballot for union votes.

Ms. Zucker said some of the statements by the Farm Bureau are disingenuous, including the conflation of family farms with small farms — even large farms may be family owned, while two-thirds of farms in the state do not even hire outside labor, she said.

“There could be winners and losers,” Ms. Zucker said of the bill.

Ultimately, though, she feels it is important to give worker protections to farm laborers.

“If your business model is based on an 80-year underpayment ... there’s something wrong there,” Ms. Zucker said.

The bill passes after the State Appellate Division, Third Department, in Albany ruled 4-1 on Thursday that farmworkers in the state have a right to organize and form unions. The case, brought by the New York State Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Crispin Hernandez, a farmworker who was laid off from Marks Farms in Lowville for allegedly trying to organize better working conditions.

The New York State Farm Bureau defended the case after the state declined, and has said it will appeal the decision. If the law is passed by the State Senate and signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, however, the case may be moot.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

Recommended for you

(5) comments

Evernay Umpertray

I believe that the sponsors of the legislation are knowledgeable about “farming and our way of life Upstate” which is exactly why farm workers need these protections. Furthermore and to my knowledge, Neither Mr. Blankenbush nor Mr. Walczyk have voiced any objections to the massive farmer welfare programs past and recently added as a result of Trump economic blunders. I do not object to welfare subsidy and socialism directed toward farmers, but I believe their workers deserve protections as well.

GreenThump

I posted a comment here, complete with a supporting video? ? ? ?

rdsouth

Looks like it showed up later. Since the switch I've posted several comments on various articles that have vanished. It's not like we have a right to it or anything, I guess they can edit. Hopefully with an even hand. The Disqus associated comment forums on the WDT electronic edition were at one time pretty much dominated by neanderthal grade extreme conservatives and slowly that tide has turned. It was almost wild west, not curated much, so worthwhile to keep an eye on. On the other hand, maybe they're just working out the kinks.

Tripilot1

Meanwhile, giant corporate farms, allowed to flourish and pay so little in taxes thrive. This burdens the working people across this country who, along with small businesses, like family farms pay the lions share of taxes to the States and Federal Government. This another example of an egregious government that is not working to the best interest of the people it should represent. It is also another example of why New York is the State of Disgrace!

GreenThump

Employers steal more from employees that vice versa, it's called wage theft. Farming is among the top industries guilty of wage theft. This is a small step for working people. https://youtu.be/W5LQ7oHGDM8

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.