Farmers across New York State, including Otsego County, are speaking out in opposition as a New York State Department of Labor Farm Laborers’ Wage Board considers lowering the threshold at which farm workers earn overtime pay from 60 hours per week to 40, a move farmers say will devastate their businesses.
Farmers went to Albany Wednesday, December 1, to deliver letters to Governor Kathy Hochul opposing the move and urging the Wage Board to keep the 60-hour overtime week.
The Farm Laborers Fair Practice Act, signed into law by former New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, statutorily reduced the weekly overtime threshold from 80 hours to 60 beginning January 1, 2020. The law also included workers’ compensation, one day of rest during the calendar week, unemployment insurance, disability, and the right to organize.
A provision included in the law authorizes the Department of Labor to convene a Wage Board to revisit lowering the required hours for overtime periodically. Citing concern over the pandemic-related recession, the Wage Board last year voted down the proposed reduction to a 40-hour overtime mark but agreed to meet this year between November 1 and December 15 to reconsider.
Farmers in Otsego County argue that a reduction in the overtime threshold demonstrates poor understanding of how the farm industry works and fear an “exorbitantly negative impact” on already thin and highly weather-dependant profit margins.
Darin Hickling, Otsego County Farm Bureau Vice President and owner of Hickling’s Fish Farm in Edmeston, said reducing the overtime hours requirement would be a “nail in the coffin for a lot of farms.”
“It’s not a typical 9 to 5 job. Farm workers know that,” Mr. Hickling said in a conversation with The Freeman’s Journal/Hometown Oneonta. “We work extra hours in the busy times but in the off season, our workers don’t even put in 40 hours. Fortunately, we can adjust the time of our fish, but if you have a dairy farm, they can’t really control the cost.”
Mr. Hickling said moving the threshold to 60 hours was considered a good compromise, but moving it further will be problematic.
“Everybody wants farm produce to be locally grown, and that’s going to be hard,” Mr. Hickling said, if the amount of hours needed for overtime were lowered. “I don’t think they care what the farm workers want. I think they’re doing this for show.”
Keith Kimball, vice-chair of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, echoed Mr. Hickling’s concerns. The lower threshold, he said, is based on a misunderstanding of how the farm industry works.
“From our perspective, we just feel it’s not fair,” Mr. Kimball told The Freeman’s Journal/Hometown Oneonta.
Mr. Kimball said costs would rise by 20% if farmers were forced to pay overtime to laborers working more than 40 hours per week.
“This is not something our employees have asked us for,” Mr. Kimball said. “Labor is just a huge portion of the costs. It’s tough to judge, it’s tough to schedule. Everything depends on the weather. It has to get done because the crops end up being time-sensitive. We all understand where this bill is coming from, but the issue is that there are unintended consequences.”
One of those “unintended consequences,” according to Mr. Kimball, is jobs moving out of state because it “costs more to make the product” than farmers’ receive.
“Once those jobs leave the state, the people leave the leave the state,” he said. “Once the people leave the state, they stop using banks here and restaurants here other states can produce it cheaper, the jobs will just move across the state line.”
Lisa Zucker, senior attorney for legislative affairs at the New York Civil Liberties Union, dismissed the claim that lowering the amount of hours needed for overtime would destroy agricultural businesses.
“They have said that almost every single time a labor protection has been implemented for farm workers,” Ms. Zucker told The Freeman’s Journal/Hometown Oneonta. She offered pesticide legislation proposed in the 1980s and minimum wage phase-in for farm workers as examples. “The fact is nothing can be further from the truth. They always make the argument that farming is unique. That is also a fallacy.”
Ms. Zucker argued New York State’s agriculture industry is rooted primarily in dairy farms and is not weather dependent.
“(Cows) get milked 24 hours a day,” Ms. Zucker said. “There are many other jobs that are seasonal and they all get overtime pay. Construction work is very weather dependent. Agriculture is the only blue-collar job in the state that doesn’t get overtime pay.”
New York State Senate Labor Committee Chairwoman Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) sponsored the law which lowered the overtime threshold from 80 to 60 hours per week and paved the way for it to be lowered to 40 hours per week.
“The Farm Laborers Fair Practices Act was historic legislation and was critical to raising the labor standards for these essential workers,” Sen. Ramos said in a statement. “The ultimate goal is to get farm workers to 40 hours, and I am trusting the wage board to find a sound timeline to do so.”
Assemblyman Chris Tague (R-Schoharie) spoke out against the proposed overtime hours reduction on December 1 when the farmers delivered their letters to Governor Hochul in Albany.
“When faced with a storm or an incoming frost, farmers have no choice but to call all hands on deck to respond, no matter how long it takes,” Assemblyman Tague said. “Farms operate on razor thin margins, and farmers often forego paychecks themselves to keep their businesses afloat. While farmers of course want to take care of their workers, providing overtime at a 40-hour threshold just isn’t feasible.”