Farmers wary despite OT ruling delay

A farmer tills land in Calcium in 2015. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Last week, a panel charged by the state Legislature with presenting recommendations on potentially lowering the overtime threshold for farm workers below 60 hours decided to postpone making any policy decision until later in 2021, giving beleaguered farmers a reprieve, at least for now.

Farmers, labor groups and justice advocates had been watching the proceedings of the three-member Farm Wage Board since it was formed and began hearings in the beginning of 2021 as charged by the 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Practices Act passed by the Legislature. Despite being temporarily derailed by the pandemic, the panel proceeded with multiple hearings to gather public input on whether the state should lower the threshold after which farm workers are required to be paid overtime from its current point of 60 hours per week as set by the 2019 law.

On Dec. 31, their deadline, the wage board recommended to the commissioner of labor, who ultimately is the final decision-maker on how and what to adopt into law, that the panel reconvene in November 2021 after more data and analysis would be available.

“It’s the economic arguments that are really quite incomplete,” Cornell Cooperative Extension Agricultural Workforce Specialist Richard Stup said of the material they could analyze from 2020. “We’ve got one year of the overtime threshold at 60 hours, and guess what? That was the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, or at least the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which completely upended the agricultural workforce in all regards. It also completely upended the economics of agriculture in all regards.”

It’s not legally guaranteed the wage board or something similar to it will in-fact reconvene. Mr. Stup said he believes that would be at the discretion of the commissioner of labor, and ultimately the governor. Regardless, the deeply held concerns about the potential fallout of lowering the overtime threshold aren’t going to evaporate.

“Unfortunately, I think they did just kick it down the road a little bit,” Lewis County Farm Bureau President Jennifer Karelus said. “To be honest, when this law passed in the first place, it’s like reading the tea leaves. It’s just a matter of time before they make a decision to lower it to 40.”

Ms. Karelus said, which others echoed, lowering the overtime threshold could present a dangerous sea-change for farms, one that many operations, especially small ones, fear they couldn’t weather.

With dairy prices controlled at the federal level and many crops being produced outside the state already at a lower cost, the ability for smaller farms, which are ultimately small businesses, to compete is already in decline across New York. While Mr. Stup said the arguments made by the labor sector and social justice advocates also have some validity, without competitive farms those jobs may not exist at all.

“You’ve got farmers and farm organizations who are looking at the welfare of their employees and the welfare of their businesses and the possibility for their businesses to remain competitive in an environment where both the neighboring states and Canada and Mexico for that matter, because it’s a global market, don’t have anywhere near the same standards,” he said. “New York farmers, in other words, are held to a much higher labor standard than any other place, except California, on the North American continent. That’s just the reality of it.”

Many farmers argued during the wage board’s hearings that the agriculture sector is unique in that often times large amounts of labor are needed during short periods, like harvest seasons requiring workers to pull long hours back-to-back. That would make a 40-hour overtime threshold extremely costly during those seasons.

Ms. Karelus said she worries the farmers she represents would have to adapt in order to stay afloat, and that may unintentionally ultimately turn out to hurt workers.

“Quite a few farm workers get benefits through the farm. If we’re going to start limiting to 40 hours, the fear is they’re going to be employing like Walmart does where you only get 39 hours because they can’t afford the benefits,” Ms. Karelus said.

Jefferson County Agriculture Coordinator Jay Matteson said he was relieved the wage board didn’t institute lowering the threshold, but like Ms. Karelus, agreed it kicked the can down the road.

“It’s a very dangerous can to kick,” Mr. Matteson said.

He said he’s understanding of the labor and justice issues raised and believes many farmers would pay more and institute better working conditions if they could.

“I think they need to start talking to farm workers across New York state, not just the very special interest group farm workers that they say they’re talking to,” Mr. Matteson said. “They need to get out, they need to come up to the north country for Christ’s sakes and have one of their hearings here in the north country instead of just down along the thruway corridor.”

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