The state must make robust investments in agriculture to help small- and mid-sized New York farms stay afloat and adopt sustainable practices — especially if the Wage Board votes this week to slash its threshold for overtime pay, officials said.

The Farm Workers Wage Board under the state Labor Department must vote on or before Wednesday to accept or reject a proposal to lower the agriculture overtime threshold to 40 hours from its current standard of 60.

The proposed decrease is intended to improve pay for farm laborers and put the industry standards on par with others, but farmers and workers alike have vehemently protested the measure.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, said lowering the threshold without meaningful and substantial state investment in agriculture will force many family farms to change priorities.

“The effects of climate change are already here, setting the stage for severe environmental changes across our country, and with flooding, fires, and droughts ravaging many of our other core agricultural states, New York is set to become the breadbasket of our country once again,” Hinchey said. “For far too long, we have undervalued and under-invested in New York agriculture. Year over year, farming costs have skyrocketed while the price for food has plummeted, leaving many small and mid-size family farms on the brink of closure. This fact, paired with the environmental trends we’re seeing, is a recipe for disaster for the future of our food security and economy if we don’t change our priorities.”

If approved, the overtime restriction and planned minimum wage hikes would result in a 42% increase in labor costs for small farms, according to a recent Farm Credit East report.

“We have to be extremely thoughtful about how we move forward, because if we continue to raise costs without real financial investment to create a more stable bottom line, New York will lose an entire generation of family farms and the highly skilled workers who call New York home,” Hinchey continued. “We are working with our partners in both labor and agriculture to have these sobering, but critical, conversations in hopes to develop a path that prioritizes our food security and the well-being of our farming community at large.”

A report released this week by Cornell University’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences on the effects of state overtime laws on agricultural production costs and competitiveness showed 40% of New York farms that responded would hire additional employees to spread hours and avoid overtime if the threshold was reduced to 40 hours, according to the report.

Two-thirds of the 20 New York dairy farms and 20 fruit and vegetable farms interviewed indicated they would leave the milk production industry and direct future dairy investment to other states or leave agriculture with a 40-hour overtime threshold.

Half of the interviewed fruit and vegetable farms said they would shrink enterprises or exit the industry. About 72% of farm workers said they would be less likely to do their current job if hours are capped at 40 per week, while 70% indicated they would consider going to another state without capped hours if New York’s hours become more limited next week, according to the report.

The majority of the interviewed 20 dairy farms and 20 fruit and vegetable farms doubted their ability to find employees particularly in the current labor environment. Outsourcing tasks to help with labor costs were mentioned by 35% of respondents.

It’s an overburdened time for farmers to battle a surge in labor costs.

The Farm Laborer Fair Labor Practices Act regulating New York farm employers went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, mandating a 60-hour overtime threshold, a day of rest, collective bargaining and increased insurance requirements for most non-supervisory, non-family farm employees.

Hired labor cost per hour increased by 5.7% to $17.40, driven by higher gross wages, increasing business share of employment taxes, workers’ compensation and benefits, according to the report.

The increase in cost per hour led to an increase of total payroll in participating farms of 7.8%.

funds to survive a CHANGING CLIMATE

An ever-warming climate is expected to force farmers to adapt to significantly more or less water in their region; more pests and invasive species; rising temperatures causing heat stress on plants, people and livestock; increasing nighttime temperatures will cause risks to tree fruit in early spring; and higher CO2 levels.

Farmer’s markets are popular and trendy, but they will become a necessity if climate change trends continue, said Julie Suarez, the associate dean for land-grant affairs at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Over the next couple decades, we’re going to be putting reliance on local farmers to sustain us with the food in the northeast,” Suarez said.

Water will become more scarce across the country as temperatures increase, leading to less available farmable land in the future globally, according to maps and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The state must invest in indoor agriculture, plant science and new plant varieties to adapt to the changing climate and create new policies to support farmers to succeed in the changing atmosphere, Suarez said.

“Scientists will develop ways that farmers can stay farming, but availability and access is going to look very, very different in the warming world,” she explained. “...In 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, we have to make sure those farmers will be there so we can feed ourselves and our families. We’re going to rely on local agriculture in ways we probably haven’t since the founding of our country and the advent of international trade.”

New York fruit farms spend about 52% of cash-operating expenses in 2020 on employee expenses, according to Cornell Fruit Farm Business summary data. Employee expenses increased 4.4% in 2020 compared to 2019.

“Pandemic-related government payments helped offset some of the labor cost increases in 2020, but are not a permanent solution,” according to the report.

Increased controlled environmental agriculture facilities allow farms to schedule full-time employees and makes it easier to farm inside of a structured work schedule, Suarez said.

“Overtime doesn’t have an access to climate change,” she added. “We have to figure out a way to keep our farmers farming in a way that is economically viable for them so they can keep producing for us.”

Hundreds of farmers submitted letters, in addition to several lawmakers in both major political parties, to Gov. Kathy Hochul concerned about keeping the state’s current overtime threshold at 60 hours.

“Our many farm tours have revealed a perilous set of conditions facing New York agriculture — conditions that were made infinitely worse by the pandemic,” Assembly Agriculture Committee Chair Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, said in a statement to the NY Farm Coalition last week. “Listening to farmers and farm workers alike, it’s clear that all parts of the food supply chain are stressed and under-paid. Systemic change is needed to stabilize and strengthen the entire industry, rather than what I fear will amount to a devastating blow.”

State Department of Labor officials have remained tight-lipped about the proposal or when the board would reconvene.

“Again, the Farm Laborers Wage Board recommended that the Wage Board be reconvened no later than Dec. 15, 2021,” state Labor Department spokesperson Deanna Cohen said in a statement Friday. “We will provide an update when we have one.”

The department’s response to questions was identical to its statement on the issue last week.

Representatives with Gov. Hochul’s office would not answer questions when asked multiple days this week about the governor’s stance on the proposal, referring to the Labor Department’s statement.

Not all states have overtime requirements or higher minimum wages, creating a tricky balance in New York, Suarez said.

Suarez is a member of the Climate Action Council’s Ag and Forestry Subcommittee, working to develop a carbon market for farmers and incentives for them to transition to climate-resilient solutions and enhance profits.

Suarez stressed the importance of farmers receiving a payment or other incentives for climate-positive practices, including carbon sequestration in soils or soil health practices.

“Policy makers have to weigh these decisions carefully and how government will intervene to compensate farmers for benefits to society,” Suarez said. “It definitely impacts how farmers farm (and) how consumers receive their food.”

Suarez agreed that the state must invest in farmers if they expect the agricultural industry to remain successful while offsetting their emissions.

Cornell University scientists continue to develop an inventory of state greenhouse gas emissions and its relation to farms, how to break down CO2 from the atmosphere into the soil or genetically altered crops that absorb more carbon-dioxide.

“It’s really important to get the science right — there’s still a lot of unknown,” Suarez said of the best ways to mitigate climate change in agriculture, including diverting methane gases from dairy animals.

“...That’s why I’m optimistic about the future in spite of there’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainty right now. It’s important the state move forward with thoughtful policies that keep our farmers farming. We have to move very carefully. It’s a balance we can’t afford to upset.”

Climate changes has thrown farms for a loop with more extreme weather events and heavy rains, which make it challenging to get into fields for planting and harvest. Lowering the overtime threshold would further complicate a burdened industry, New York Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman said.

“This only increases the pressure on farms to take advantage of the dry days to get as much work done as possible before the next storm moves through,” Ammerman said in a statement Friday. “There is no eight-hour workday in agriculture.”

Cost-sharing programs exist in the state to assist with farm costs, but the assistance would not off-set the anticipated increases in labor costs if the overtime threshold drops to 40 hours, Ammerman said.

“Sustainability on a farm isn’t just speaking about the environment, it also means a farm must be financially viable to be around for the next generation,” he said. “Farms will be forced make some tough decisions about their futures.”

“Lawmakers must be aware that every time public policy makes it costlier to farm in the state, there will be fewer farms producing food, providing jobs and open spaces, and supporting the tax base that funds New York state,” he added. “We must work together to find the balance that supports the agricultural community that we all need and rely on.”

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets reports farm laborers say language access, upward mobility, immigration reform and child care are as equally as important as wages when reforming the state’s agricultural practices, department officials said in a statement when asked about the proposed overtime changes.

“The department supports an equitable workforce, and is proud that New York state farm workers are among the highest paid in the nation, according to a report from Farm Credit East, however, the department also recognizes that the farming industry is unique and unlike many other industries in its demands to ensure proper animal care and the harvesting of crops at certain times of the year,” Department of Agriculture and Markets spokeswoman Jola Szubielski said in a statement Friday. “The department has seen a number of surveys of farmworkers that indicate that language access, upward mobility, immigration reform, and child care are equally as important to them as wages. The department strongly encourages a careful review of this material by the wage board.”

Department officials agree that several studies show lowering the state’s overtime threshold would significantly impact New York’s agricultural industry, production agriculture and the food system, especially as the industry struggles to recover from markets lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Szubielski said.

The current 60-hour threshold was established under the 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, and took effect in January 2020.

For information about the Farm Workers Wage Board and recordings of past hearings, visit dol.ny.gov/farm-laborers-wage-board-hearings.

California, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington states also have overtime laws for agriculture.

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