While state legislators needed to address the long-standing problems confronted by farm laborers, their prescription went too far.
For decades, the State Employment Relations Act denied farm laborers the right to organize. Advocates for these workers said this measure from the 1930s was designed to discriminate against black people.
Crispin Hernandez said he was fired from Marks Farms in Lowville in 2015 for meeting with union representatives and encouraging fellow workers to demand better conditions. Backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, he sued the state the following year.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and then-state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman sided with the NYCLU and declined to defend the law. So the New York State Farm Bureau filed for intervenor status.
The Albany County Supreme Court dismissed the suit in January 2018. But the Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department in Albany reversed this decision in May of this year, ruling the provision was unconstitutional.
Members of the state Legislature began drafting a bill to resolve some of these issues. They passed the legislation on the final day of this session, and Mr. Cuomo pledged to sign it into law.
The bill contains some worthwhile compromises. Rather than allow farmworkers to collect overtime after 40 hours, they will be paid time and a half for any labor they provide in excess of 60 hours. And farmworkers may collectively organize but not strike.
However, the measure includes some provisions that remain a cause of concern.
The bill creates a wage board, consisting of one representative each from the Farm Bureau, state AFL-CIO and member of the public. Board members are authorized to hold hearings to determine if they wish to recommend a lower cap on overtime hours. So a 40-hour mandate may come at a later time.
The bill also revises the definition of “family” when it comes to farmworkers. Extended members of a family will now be considered employees covered by the statute. Relatives often help out on farms to keep labor expenses low, but now farmers will have to pay them the same as other hired workers.
The legislation permits farm laborers to take one day of the week off. But if they choose to work on this day, they’ll be paid overtime — even if they haven’t exceeded the 60-hour threshold. Labor shortages could compel farms to use workers on their days off, unnecessarily increasing their overtime costs.
Another problem with the bill is that it wouldn’t require secret ballots if farmworkers decided to vote on whether to join a union. Some labors may feel pressured to vote in favor of unionizing if they must make their decision public.
While it’s good that the state Legislature finally secured some rights for farm laborers, this measure has serious flaws. Farmers confront much different circumstances than those in many other industries do, complicating their ability to derive enough revenue to pay for the increases in labor costs they’ll face.
Dairy farmers, for example, make their living in the commodities market. Prices are set according to the collective demand for items offered on a broad scale.
Individual farm owners are not able to raise the prices of their goods to cover increases in expenses. How they’ll finance these higher labor costs is anyone’s guess. This will put more pressure on farms already feeling tremendous strain.
An effective farmworkers bill must eliminate the proposed wage board, reconsider the definition of “family,” mandate overtime only when employees work more than 60 hours and allow for secret ballots when voting to unionize.
State lawmakers need to go back to the drawing board and revise this bill. It could put more farms out of business as it’s written now, and that won’t help anyone.