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.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(4) comments

rockloper

The government is already subsidizing farmers. Where have you been?

JohnMcElroy

Farms produce essential commodities, milk, vegetables and meat such as beef, chicken and pork. Prices for these essential items must be kept low in order for Americans to afford food to eat. Labor to produce these essential products has to be kept in line with what the farmer gets for his product. No one wants to or can afford 40 dollars a pound steak or 10 dollars a gallon milk. Therefore if unions are allowed to set wages for farm workers government must subsidize farms to keep the farmer from going under. Plain as day.

rdsouth

This boils down to better wages. Better wages come out of the pockets of employers. Theoretically, they pass those costs on to customers. But agriculture is usually considered to receive prices from the national market, rather than being free to set them with no more to take into account other than local competition (as a gas station or restaurant would). So if a state imposes constraints on agriculture then it makes its farmers less competitive. However, is that true in the case of dairy? Does milk really get shipped across the country? Aren't regional dairy farmers really competing only against other regional dairy farmers? Could the state impose import duties on milk from Vermont or New Jersey to compensate?

rockloper

When are people going to realize the current model of farming does not work? The workers are the back bone of any organization and if it doesn't work for them it doesn't work for anyone.

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