by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Farmers are known for their resiliency. But between the onslaught of rain — and the severe complications it is causing — and now the passing of the “Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act”, one can’t help but wonder how much producers can take before buckling under the pressure.
“I am deeply disappointed that this legislation passed,” remarked NYS Assemblyman John Salka (R, NYS Dist 121).
Salka said he’d had opportunity to debate this bill on the floor of the assembly.
“And despite the strong points we made, that this will do immeasurable harm to our farmers — in particular to the dairy industry of our state, the assembly Democratic majority went ahead and approved the bill anyway.”
Salka said he asked Assemblywoman Nolan, prime sponsor of the bill, if she knew what farmers are getting paid for 100 pounds of milk and if she was aware of what their productions costs are.
“She had no clue,” Salka reported. “This lack of fundamental knowledge of the workings of one of the biggest industries in our state leads one to believe that those that make critical decisions affecting so many people’s well-being are not doing their homework.”
Dairy farmer Paul Fouts of Tompkins County knows the answer to Salka’s question to Nolan.
“Those that voted in favor of the bill did an injustice to farmers and farm workers alike,” Fouts remarked. “It is clear how dangerous ignorance can be.”
But Fouts believes that the bill passed was better than what was originally proposed.
“Thanks to the leadership of Farm Bureau, a collaborative effort of many agricultural organizations, and hundreds of farmers and farm workers willing to stand up with a unified message, the bill was tempered.”
However, he points out, “There are some concerns that the changes we did make are fragile, so the work is not over.
Paul Larrabee, spokesman for Grow NY Farms, which represents a coalition of more than 50 NY farms, organizations and local businesses, acknowledges major flaws in the bill.
“There were four flaws in the legislation that are absolutely fixable,” Larrabee explained during a phone interview. “It’s important that they get remedied for the strength of both the agriculture industry and the state of New York. They’re easily fixable. The thing that was so disappointing was these were 11th hour changes that blindsided the agriculture community. But we believe that if these changes are made, it would be good for all involved.”
Larrabee remarked that New York’s agriculture community worked together for months to meet a fundamental goal of developing farm labor legislation protecting combined interests of both farms and farmworkers.
“We negotiated in good faith with many majority lawmakers who were interested in hearing from those who would be directly impacted by the legislation. Political realities meant we had to come find a middle ground that was mutually beneficial.”
Larrabee said they had believed their goal was achieved and although posing significant challenges, they had believed the bill was an improvement over what was originally proposed by legislature.
“It was a vast improvement than where we started,” Larrabee said. “Unfortunately there were some flaws thrown into the legislation in the final days of this legislative session that made the bill unacceptable. Despite the passage of this flawed legislation (S.6578/A.8419), we have not given up on finding a way to fix those flaws.”
These major flaws include a requirement that wages paid on the seventh consecutive day of work must be based on an overtime rate, even if the worker asks to work that day.
A second flaw is a failure to recognize extended family, such as uncles, aunts and cousins, in the definition of family workers. Larrabee explained that this would make their participation in farm activities subject to the new statute.
The third concern is with a newly created wage board.
“The creation of a wage board lacks New York’s key agency expert on agricultural issues – the State Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Markets,” Larrabee reported.
A fourth flaw addresses voting to form unions.
“Elections involving the ability to form a union lack the integrity of a secret ballot,” Larrabee observed.
Anthony Emmi of Emmi & Sons, Inc, a third generation, 300-acre fruit and vegetable farm in Onondaga County, agrees. “You shouldn’t put a person in that kind of position to be strong-armed,” said Emmi, who employs about 70 workers, with 29 being from the H-2A program. “Why should your vote be known by everybody else?” Emmi said this will result in peer pressure among the workers.
Emmi also said paying overtime is not an option at his farm and cutting hours will mean a loss of workers. “They’re all concerned about loss of hours. Our guys are already saying, even on 60-hours, ‘if we lose 10 or 20 hours a week, we can’t come back to New York.’”
“We can’t pay overtime, because we don’t get paid enough money for our product to do it,” Emmi remarked. “I think the legislators see the net farm income and that’s all they see. They don’t see there’s really not a lot of profit out there and there’s probably none in most cases — especially in dairy.”
Emmi said his farm is looking at different crops and other options. “We can barely make the payroll now because New York’s rates are so high. I pretty much know what it’s going to do to us.”
Jason Turek, partner in Turek Farms, Cayuga County, said their vegetable farm employs about 130 H-2A employees and another 10 full-time employees.
“We compete with every border state around us,” said Turek. “Michigan, Indiana and Canada —and all of these people are looking at us and laughing at the predicament that we’re in. At the end of the day we still have to compete against all of these other states and this really puts us at a competitive disadvantage. We have to be competitive and viable and this bill, at the end of the day, doesn’t do that.”
He predicts that over the next 5 years the wage board will mandate lowering worker hours to 40-per week. “You can see the writing on the wall of where they want this thing to go and it’s probably the way California is. We’ll probably be looking for opportunities outside of this state at this point.”
Senator Pam Helming (R, C, I, NYS Dist 54) commented on the new legislation.
“While I commend the attempts to balance the needs of our farmers and their employees, the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act falls short,” said Helming. “In fact, it should be named the Farmworkers Flee New York Act because it is simply more job-killing regulation, unrealistic for our small and large farms. This is what happens when New York City, a place that enjoys farmers markets, but not farms, tries to legislate a business that they do not understand. It takes more than a few trips to farms to understand the daily toil or how weather and other variables impact day-to-day work.”
Helming went on to say, “It will have a devastating impact on the industry as a whole, especially our small family operations, and their hardworking employees. This is a direct assault on upstate New York’s top job creator. When Upstate speaks and downstate lawmakers fail to listen and legislate anyway to claim victory, it not a good day for New York.”
Senator James L. Seward (R/C/I/RFM, NYS Dist 51) also commented on the passage of the bill.
“Earlier this year, the New York City-centric senate leadership blocked Amazon and 25,000 jobs from coming to our state. Now they are killing off existing jobs by targeting our state’s number one industry — agriculture. The labor bill approved today will be another crushing blow for our already struggling family farms. High energy costs, low milk prices, never ending regulations, and out of control property taxes are just some of the obstacles our farmers deal with every day. This new law will increase operating costs of farms by an estimated $300 million. This bad legislation is opposed by the New York Farm Bureau and a host of agricultural advocates. Farming is a unique business and must be treated as such. Plain and simple — this bill will plow more family farms under.”