A bill passed by the state Legislature last year to address concerns raised by farmworkers had some serious flaws.

While the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act requires employees to work at least 60 hours to collect overtime, this threshold isn’t set in stone. The law 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.

The act 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 limit. Labor shortages could compel farms to use workers on their days off, unnecessarily increasing their overtime costs.

One of the biggest problems with the legislation, however, is how it redefines “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 the law compels farmers to pay them the same as other hired workers.

On Dec. 31, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo in Buffalo issued a temporary against this provision of the law. The act went into effect Jan. 1, and this order will last until Jan. 24. Another hearing will be held on that date.

“Two farmer groups, the Northeast Dairy Producers Association and New York State Vegetable Growers Association, filed the lawsuit [Dec. 30] in an effort to halt the state from implementing the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act,” according to a story published Jan. 2 by the Watertown Daily Times. “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 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,” the article reported. “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.”

A statement by Canton dairy farmer Jon R. Greenwood, who chairs the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, summarized the benefit of Judge Vilardo’s temporary restraining order

“The narrow scope of the ruling will allow us to continue to work with the state to improve language and definitions in the act,” Mr. Greenwood wrote. “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.”

Critics of the law need to encourage state legislators to address the problems in it, particularly this provision.

Lawmakers should review the act to see how the concerns of farmers can be incorporated into a revision that will protect everyone’s interests.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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