LOWVILLE — Despite a court challenge and temporary injunction on last year’s state labor law, New York farmers are still pushing back against the legislation.
Under the Farm Laborers Fair Practices Act, the state required most farm laborers be paid one and one-half times normal wages after working more than 60 hours. It also made several other provisions including requiring most workers get one dedicated day of rest per week and allowing laborers to form collective bargaining units. Advocacy groups for agriculture sectors and the farmers they represent have reacted with vehement opposition to the law, especially the overtime requirement, arguing that it’s forced an already struggling industry into a tougher position.
“The biggest concern I’ve heard is the overtime requirement,” Lewis County Farm Bureau President Jen Karelus said.
She said the new requirement has made 2020 even more difficult on farmers, many of whom have had to deal with supply chain issues and reduced demand related to COVID-19.
“Going from no overtime to even just 60 hours is a huge expense to farms because there’s always concerns,” Ms. Karelus said. “In a year like this where a lot of guys had to dump milk and income is down even more than normal, this hits harder.”
The 60-hour overtime requirement is not entirely permanent at this point. The 2019 law set up a farm wage board that would study the issue, collect public feedback, then provide recommendations on whether to adjust the overtime requirements moving forward. Since the beginning of the year, the farm wage board has held four public hearings with over 130 oral testimonies, many of those from farmers opposed to the 60-hour overtime requirement.
A fifth hearing is scheduled via Zoom on Sept. 30. Written testimony can be submitted until Oct. 31. The board must submit recommendations before the end of the year.
Earlier this year, the Northeast Dairy Producers Association and the New York State Vegetable Growers Association filed a lawsuit over the labor law in federal court. They requested a temporary restraining order relating to the law’s provisions as they relate to family members and farm workers in more administrative positions.
In question was the law’s definition of family members and other special parties like managers and how they applied to the law.
“Obviously, family farms are different than other businesses just by virtue of the amount and extent of family involvement and succession planning and so forth,” Richard Stup, an agricultural workforce specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, said in a webinar about the law last month. “Then missing from the legislation were just some of the exemptions that every other industry had. So, as we progressed forward and we tried to work with the Department of Labor, hard for them because they didn’t write the legislation to sort of try to re-legislate and ultimately it became apparent to us by the end of the year that we had to challenge the legislation in order to get a legislative change in place.”
Ultimately, the lawsuit did lead to some clarification in this area, though the restrictions are still relatively complicated.
For example, family members are only considered to be within three degrees of consanguinity, so no further removed from a farm owner than a niece or nephew. Family members, as defined under the law, are not subject to the overtime or day of rest requirements. If those family members are paid an hourly wage, then they are not exempt under the law.
According to Mr. Stup, there are still a number of ambiguities in the law that haven’t been challenged or fleshed out yet. This includes how wage-earning family members would interact with a collective bargaining unit and whether farm supervisors could participate in union activities as well.