Judge halts portions of new farm labor law

A worker at Silvery Falls farm walks through the farm after a long day in July of 2018. Photo courtesy of WPBS

BUFFALO — A federal court judge on Tuesday halted the implementation of certain provisions of a new state law that extends a number of labor rights to farm workers.

Two farmer groups, the Northeast Dairy Producers Association and New York State Vegetable Growers Association, filed the lawsuit Monday in an effort to halt the state from implementing the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. The coalitions claimed that by allowing farm owners, extended family and supervisors to be incorporated in the definition of “farm laborer” in the legislation, the provisions in the law intended to affect lower level farm workers contradict each other and violate federal regulations. The groups, therefore, filed a lawsuit to “clarify the act’s ambiguities and contradictions,” and ensure their compliance, according to the litigation.

In the midst of ongoing litigation, the judge issued a temporary restraining order suspending provisions regulating the payment, work time and status of extended family members and executive, supervisory, administrative and professional workers. The order does not pertain to how the law, which still took effect starting Wednesday, affects other farm workers.

“The narrow scope of the (restraining order) ruling will allow us to continue to work with the state to improve language and definitions in the act,” wrote Canton dairy farmer Jon R. Greenwood, who chairs the Northeast Dairy Producers Association. “Providing clarity to New York’s farms will help us protect our management teams, while assuring family members and others employed on our farms are treated fairly.”

The new law allows farm workers to collectively organize and bargain, although not to strike; earn overtime pay at one and a half times their normal rate after 60 hours of work and have a full day off per week.

The legislation also ensures houses for farm workers meet sanitary codes, requires workers to report injuries, allows them to receive paid family leave and disability benefits, extends provisions of unemployment insurance law to include farm workers and eliminates the payroll threshold that requires employers to obtain workers’ compensation coverage.

Opponents of the law have said it raises farmers’ costs and threatens their economic viability.

While dairy and vegetable dairy farmers associations have been critical of the law, writing in the lawsuit that “the harsh economic impact on farms, particularly small farms, will undoubtedly harm these workers in many respects,” their litigation seeks only to address confusion involving the definition of farm laborer and related matters.

The new law allows farm laborers to unionize, but because the definition includes owners, their family and supervisors, it grants them the right to collective bargaining as well. Both groups claim the definition presents a “Catch 22” that inhibits union activity, thus violating farm workers’ rights. Including owners and leaders in the definition of “farm laborer” also conflicts with the collective bargaining provisions in the new law itself, as well as the National Labor Relations Act, the associations claim.

“The ruling in favor of the (restraining order) is an important first step for ensuring the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practice Act is implemented fairly for all who work on farms in New York,” wrote Baldwinsville vegetable farmer Brian Reeves, also president of the New York State Vegetable Grower’s Association, in a statement. “We want to protect the rights of all who work on our farms and are so important to our success.”

The temporary restraining order will remain in effect until Jan. 24, when another hearing has been scheduled.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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