Overtime pay for farm workers mulled

A north country farmer gets into a tractor in this file photo. Watertown Daily Times

ALBANY — The way farm workers are paid in New York state could drastically change, pending the decision of a panel charged with making such recommendation. But it seems the panel will likely wait until the last minute.

The three-member Farm Wage Board was appointed earlier this year to parse out one of the more controversial points of the New York Fair Labor Practices Act, which instituted a broad array of new standards for farms. The 2019 law included a 60-hour threshold whereafter workers must receive overtime pay — time and a half — as well as a mandatory day of rest and collective bargaining rights.

The 60-hour threshold, many farmers and industry groups worry, could cause the already struggling sector even more strife to compete with neighboring states without such stringent rules. Last year when the full bill was under consideration, labor groups pushed for the threshold to be set at the 40-hour limit like most other industries, but were met with significant push back from the agriculture sector.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached for the 2019 legislation that directed New York Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon to appoint a board to consider testimony and craft a set of recommendations on the threshold for overtime pay. That board held several hearings throughout the year, but must present its recommendations by Thursday.

Two short meetings were held via Zoom on both Monday and Tuesday, during both of which the board members laid out their various arguments and staked positions on what they believed the recommendations should address. A third, and likely final, meeting of the board is set for Thursday, but the text of the recommendations, which would become law with approval of the commissioner of labor, has not been released publicly.

Roughly 27,000 people were employed in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries in 2019, according to state Department of Labor data. That number has slowly increased each year since 2010. The average wage for farm workers in this sector was about $38,224 in 2019, according to the DOL. While they have risen in recent years, those wages are still far below the median income, which is upwards of $68,000, according to statewide census data.

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher, one of the three members, pressed the others to consider holding off on implementing the recommendations pending further study of the issue and the disruption already occurring in 2020, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re in a pandemic,” Mr. Fisher said Monday. “It’s not a good time. It’s not great in the farm community, probably the highest rate of food insecurity in this state we have seen in a long side and I think all of those things need to be considered.”

Mr. Fisher’s foil on the board, former New York American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations President Denis Hughes, argued other industries already function with similar labor standards and the board could theoretically recommend to institute a 40-hour threshold over time.

“What we’re talking about here is trying to get to a compromise where, to the best of all our abilities, the farm industry, agricultural industry, has time to adjust to what the wage and hour requirements every other industry in the state are required to do,” Mr. Hughes said Monday. “We’re talking about time. We’re talking about an understanding.”

The board’s third member, Buffalo Urban League Chief Executive Officer Brenda W. McDuffie, seemed to suggest she would support a staggered implementation of moving the threshold down toward 40 hours.

“I’m really hopeful that we can move towards some of the actions that we need to take as a board to get to a place that we will have a recommendation that allows us to move forward in a way,” Ms. McDuffie said Monday. “One of the things I read about ... some sort of staggering of the timing on getting to the place that we want to get to in terms of number of hours that a person works before the overtime rules go into effect.”

The board will meet again Thursday. Any report sent by the board still needs pending approval from the commissioner of labor.

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(1) comment

Hoosier

Make more milk, watch prices drop, take it out on the worker........is a command economy concept, communism. The free market dictates a few farmers go out of business. It's tough, but works. Frees up capitol for other things, and industries to employ the workers.

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