Farm Labor Bill: Working against New York farms and their employees

The New York State Assembly on May 13 was considering A.1792A, sponsored by Queens County Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, which would impose factory style labor mandates on family farms. From New York Farm Bureau’s perspective, a vote in support of the so-called “farm worker fair labor practices act” is a vote against New York’s hard working farm families and the farm workers employed. Keep in mind; the advocacy groups behind this legislation include unions, college students, and downstate members of the Legislature who do not understand either the realities of providing food for our tables.

An overwhelming majority of farm employees, who routinely return to the very same farms every year to make a good wage and receive fair treatment, are not the ones demanding changes to the law that will restrict their hours and limit new opportunities. This 25-plus year old bill ignores the fact that numerous state and federal regulations already exist that mandate fair labor, health and safety standards, farm worker agreements and employee protections, all of which New York Farm Bureau supports. Farmers have never asked to be exempted from basic laws which govern all New York employees, such as the payment of minimum wage requirements, whistleblower protections, anti-human trafficking statutes and workplace harassment.

Attempting to apply overtime and collective bargaining rules that exist for factories are not appropriate or suitable for our state’s farms. Simply put, harvesting crops doesn’t fit into a typical work week schedule. Rainy weather may keep farm employees out of the fields for a couple of days, and when the sun is out, ripe food can’t always wait for the next day’s 8-hour shift to begin. Farms need flexibility that suits their individual needs in order to get local foods to local tables.

Just as important to consider are the employee ramifications of passing this bill. Many farmers simply can’t afford overtime costs, as farmers are price-takers and at the mercy of global market conditions setting commodity prices. Farmers who can’t afford the additional costs will limit the hours available to individual workers who come to this country to work hard and seek out additional hours to earn a decent living. Farms pay well above minimum wage, typically $9 to $12 an hour, and farmers in New York have the double edged sword of being the second highest in terms of farm labor payroll costs of the top 10 agricultural states according to research by Farm Credit East. But the employees’ work would be shut off if they were to hit a state mandated limit on hours, which forces the employees to simply travel to a different state, or pick up additional hours on another farm, becoming much more like retail workers than farm employees. Bottom line, they would make less income for their families back home under the Assembly’s plan.

New York’s farmers are dependent on quality, skilled agricultural labor, and go through great lengths to ensure safe working, living, and wage conditions for employees. Farm work agreements, required by state law above and beyond the Wage Theft Prevention Act, lay out the work to be performed, wages, work days, and a host of other important arrangements. If an employee is unhappy, they have every right and ability to simply vote with their feet and leave employment, just like everyone else in today’s work place.

If farm labor advocates were serious about helping farm employees, they would spend their great efforts in Washington, D.C. advocating for serious immigration reform to bring migrant workers who are here in this country with questionable documentation out of the shadows where they can lead more open and productive lives in this country.

We are hopeful that the public at large, and representatives in the New York State Assembly will consider the serious consequences of this bill, should it become law, to the ability of our family farmers to provide local foods to local tables. It is noteworthy that the former individuals pushing this bill have actually been indicted for failure to adequately compensate their own employees. New York Farm Bureau finds it ironic that the primary legislators behind this bill have rarely set foot on New York farms, or talked to real farm workers working in the real fields of New York.

This legislation will force serious change in our family farms, causing many of our members to stop producing the diverse fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products that we do now and turning more to row crops that can be grown more readily in this state, which is already an extremely costly one in which to farm.

For additional information including reaction from New York farmers who employ seasonal migrant workers, check out the video on YouTube:

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