Dec 31, 2020
New York panel delays reduction of 60-hour overtime threshold

The three-person New York Farm Labor Wage Board voted Dec. 31 to delay reducing the overtime threshold for farmworkers until at least November.

The board had considered lowering the overtime threshold from 60 to 40 hours per week.

Board member and New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher, in a prepared statement, said he supported board chairperson Brenda McDuffie’s position of delaying a decision.

“I had encouraged giving the process more time to fully evaluate what a lower threshold would mean for all involved, especially with such limited data from this challenging year,” Fisher said. “I’d like to thank my fellow wage board members for their time and professionalism and encourage the Department of Labor to continue to work with the farming community to do what is best for our farms and employees. We need each other for agricultural production and our rural economies to flourish.”

A diverse group of agricultural organizations in New York state had previously called on the 60-hour overtime threshold for farm laborers to remain in place as a New York State Department of Labor wage board determines its fate.

According to a news release from the New York Farm Bureau, the groups sent a joint letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Nov. 23 outlining why a further reduction in the overtime hourly threshold will be detrimental to the livelihoods of farmers and farmworkers across the state and will expedite automation upon the rural landscape.

“New York farms already face extreme competitive pressure in the marketplace from farms in other states and countries that can easily undercut New York prices needed to sustain a profitable business. Higher labor costs in New York will only exacerbate that problem,” the news release stated.

“There is no comparison to other industries in New York state when it comes to farm needs and our labor force. Our food supply is perishable. It depends on weather factors and a changing climate. The competitive commodity markets are dictated by the lowest possible price, prices that farmers must take. Only those who direct market straight to the consumer off the farm can dictate what they charge and even then, those prices must be competitive with other farm stands and supermarkets. The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed the fragility of our food system as well as its importance to feed fellow New Yorkers during a time of great need. Without those farms, programs like Nourish NY cannot succeed.”

The Farm Laborers Wage Board was mandated by the Farm Laborer Fair Labor Practices Act that became law just this year.  The three-member board held public hearings to hear directly from people in agriculture on what a lower overtime threshold would mean. Farmers and their employees overwhelming described the economic challenges they are facing, especially in a pandemic, and how a lower threshold will likely lead to fewer hours available and less income for employees. Furthermore, the current threshold was agreed upon just last year when all aspects of the farming community and lawmakers came together and negotiated a workable number of 60-hours that struck an appropriate balance to address both the needs of farmworkers and farms.

The letter sent to the governor read in part,

“Please know that if the overtime threshold for New York farm workers is lowered to a level below 60 hours per week, the face of New York agriculture will be irreparably altered and we will no longer remain economically competitive in the crops and commodities that require a labor force. As farmers testified this year before the wage board, varieties of vegetables that require hand labor will continue to disappear, increasingly relying on imports from places that do not have strong worker protections like in New York State. Orchards will be pulled in lieu of field crops that only require machines for planting and harvest. Dairy farms will turn to robotic milking machines at a faster rate than today. Our regional and worldwide competitors – who have no such requirements – will only gain advantage from these changes, not New York farmers.”

The letter concludes by asking that the 60-hour threshold remain the same. Agriculture’s future, particularly the next generation of New York farmers and the communities they support and feed, are dependent upon it.

On Dec. 22, New York Farm Bureau issued a statement Calling for the DOL Wage Board to base overtime decision on facts. The statement read as follows:

“The farming community presented a compelling case before the Department of Labor’s Farm Labor Wage Board. One growing season is not enough time to make a reasonable decision that will have far-reaching impacts on the state’s food system and job opportunities for thousands of employees. An economic analysis of the farm labor legislation that was enacted just this year and its 60-hour overtime threshold is needed to best inform the decision making on whether that threshold should be lowered.

Farmers, employees, labor groups and lawmakers all agreed last year that 60 hours was a reasonable threshold. It provides a balance for farms that can’t set prices in a highly competitive marketplace while also providing hours and pay that many employees are seeking during New York’s short growing season. But lowering it further will likely make things more difficult for workers and farmers. Employees testified they would leave the state to find more available hours elsewhere, often in states with fewer labor protections than here in New York. It would also raise labor costs that will be tough for farms to absorb, forcing difficult decisions to be made about their future and what they farm.

This has all played out in an extraordinary year where a NYFB survey found two-thirds of farms were negatively impacted by the pandemic. Food insecurity and the reliance on local food drives have climbed. All of this while the farm community has been proactive in protecting farmworkers and mitigating the spread of the virus. These events reinforce why the wage board decision is so profound this year. It must be based on data, not emotion. New York Farm Bureau is simply asking for time. We need to understand the long-term economic fallout and how labor is fairing under the new law for the betterment of all New Yorkers who depend on local agriculture. Let’s once again work together to make that happen.”

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