“Swift” normally wouldn’t be an adjective to describe New York State’s bureaucracy. However, as several state legislators called for the elimination of the NYS Farm Laborers Wage Board and rejection of their recommendation to lower the overtime threshold to 40 hours, Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon approved the lightning-speed recommendation to Gov. Kathy Hochul on Sept. 30.

New York now joins Washington, Minnesota, Hawaii, Maryland and California in changing overtime rules for ag workers. “I thank the Farm Laborers Wage Board and all New Yorkers who provided insight and input during this inclusive process,” said Reardon. “I come from a farm community myself, so I know how important the agricultural sector is to the New York State economy. Based on the findings, I feel the Farm Laborers Wage Board’s recommendations are the best path forward to ensure equity for farmworkers and success for agricultural businesses.”

New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said the decision shows “the cause for justice finally prevailed.”

Reardon’s justification and promptness was an easy move, according to her own NYS Department of Labor press release: “During the course of the Board’s deliberations in 2022, the Governor and Legislature enacted three new tax credits to assist farm employers in transitioning to a lower overtime standard. The Investment Tax Credit was increased from 4% to 20% for farm businesses, providing an encouragement for potential automation of farm production. The Farm Workforce Retention Tax Credit was increased to $1,200 per employee to provide near-term relief to farmers. Most importantly, a new refundable overtime tax credit was established for overtime hours paid by farm employers at the level established by the Board and confirmed by the Commissioner up to 60 hours.

“The Wage Board of three noted that these actions by the Governor and Legislature were supportive of food production and provided a means for farms to transition to a lower overtime standard.” But will the cost to New York taxpayers, estimated at $130 million per year, be worth it?

New York Labor Commissioner approves lower overtime threshold

A farmer’s work is never done. Planting cover crops is an important soil health practice after harvesting corn silage. Photo by Troy Bishopp

Hochul, speaking two days before the decision was issued, said if Reardon approved the plan, she would support it. “That is the right thing to do,” Hochul said on Sept. 28. Hochul said farmers won’t be financially harmed, because she and the legislature in the state budget approved a front-loaded tax credit program that will compensate farmers for any overtime costs. The governor said she understands how “critical” the farm industry is to the state.

“That extra cost will be absorbed by the State of New York,” Hochul said. “Because, to me, the farm community is part of our national security, it’s part of our state’s economic security. It’s a huge driver of jobs.”

The reaction to the announcement and the “farmers not being harmed” rhetoric was just as swift. “New York’s agriculture community is deeply disappointed in Commissioner Reardon’s ill-informed decision to lower the overtime threshold for our family farms,” stated the Grow NY Farms Coalition. “This decision threatens the security of our food supply, the retention of our skilled farmworkers and the future of New York’s farms. If Governor Hochul has the ability to step in and stop this damaging decision, she must do so immediately.”

“This is a difficult day for all those who care about New York being able to feed itself,” stated New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher. “Commissioner Reardon’s decision to lower the farm labor overtime threshold will make it even tougher to farm in this state and will be a financial blow to the workers we all support. Moving forward, farms will be forced to make difficult decisions on what they grow, the available hours they can provide to their employees and their ability to compete in the marketplace. All of this was highlighted in the testimony and data that the wage board report and the commissioner simply ignored.”

State Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt, in a statement, called the decision “nothing short of a scheduled collapse of New York’s agricultural industry.”

In the spirit of Halloween tricks or treats, the NYS Department of Labor will now be undergoing a rule-making process which will include a 60-day public comment period. It’s anyone’s guess if we will see the transparency ghost ahead of November’s election.

by Troy Bishopp