The following letter to the editor was originally published on September 12, 2022. The article…
ALBANY — Today, a coalition representing the state’s agriculture community launched its campaign to protect farms, jobs, and local food production by upholding the 60-hour overtime threshold created as a result of the 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. Grow NY Farms, the coalition comprised of agriculture businesses and organizations, is working to maintain the current 60-hour overtime threshold in order to safeguard the interests of farmworkers and farmers. A New York State Wage Board is poised to reconvene later this year to assess the threshold, which is at risk of being reduced even further to 40 hours if the board deems necessary. The proposed reduction would economically devastate many New York farms, with immediate consequences felt most by farmworkers themselves.
In 2019, the same coalition came together to advocate on behalf of farms and farmworkers in New York State as the Legislature considered, and passed, the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. Organizations in the coalition include the New York Farm Bureau, New York State Vegetable Growers Association, Northeast Dairy Producers Association, Inc., New York Apple Association, and Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance. This group has once again mobilized as the agreed-upon threshold established in 2019 is being reviewed by the Wage Board later this year.
Prior to the adoption of the 60-hour overtime threshold, the industry standard for farmworkers was 80 hours during peak season — a well-established concept amongst farmworkers and farmers whose industry is reliant on labor-intensive harvesting. Although influenced by downstate activists unfamiliar with the agriculture industry, the threshold of 60 hours was achieved as a compromise, despite objections from farmworkers who want as many hours as possible. Farmworkers, many of whom come from other countries to work seasonally, benefited from longer weekly hours, sufficient to make a projected income before returning home. Farmers are at risk of being able to afford a workforce if the overtime threshold moves to 40 hours per week.
If this threshold is lowered to 40 hours, farms will have to reassess their entire business model and operations. Farmworkers and farmers are aware of opportunities in other states that do not mandate the same restrictions, allowing both the farmworker and farm owner to make more money yearly. New York State is at risk of losing many economic drivers built on the farming community and its nearly $6 billion dollar economic impact.
“The truth of the matter is farms will change their operations to be less labor intensive, which means fewer locally produced products, fruits, and vegetables for New Yorkers, worse yet, some farms will cease to exist. Across the country our workforce availability is dwindling, and New York farms are already struggling to compete. Any more restrictions and farms that have been in families for generations could disappear. While proponents of a 40-hour work week claim to fight for the workers, farmworkers will be the ones to lose out as their hours will surely be cut or jobs could be eliminated. Please visit a farm to learn more. Keeping the overtime threshold at 60 hours is the only option for New York’s diverse agricultural community and its employees,” said Eric Ooms, New York Farm Bureau Vice-President and dairy farmer.
“It is time once again to raise our voices and stand united, farmers, farmworkers, and industry partners as an agriculture community to fight for our future viability. Reducing the overtime threshold from 60 hours to 40 hours will further burden a struggling community unable to absorb the costs and will ultimately fall on the shoulders of farmworkers, hindering their ability to make a living and support their families. Furthermore, this will have a direct negative impact on rural economies and farms are the backbone of many communities. The Wage Board and New York State cannot lower the overtime threshold. It will be a landmark decision many in our community will not be able to survive,” said John Dickinson, Chair of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, Inc.
“Our communities depend on local farms to provide the diversity of fresh fruit and vegetables. New York prides itself on the variety of local fruits, vegetables and artisanal goods that have become well acclaimed. Without the help of an affordable workforce, New York consumers will have to increasingly rely on farms and farmers from other states and countries to supply what was once locally self-sufficient and reliable. We will have less diverse agriculture and will resemble Iowa, a state dominated by corn and soybeans. We will become less food secure which is problematic for a populous state such as New York,” said Brian Reeves, President, New York State Vegetable Growers Association.
“The pandemic exposed how critical the issue of food access and security is for people in New York and across the country. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that having a reliable supply chain is essential to ensuring that the public can easily continue to safely access food. For New York City in particular, programs like Nourish New York rely on an abundant supply of New York–grown produce to help feed all residents. To toss our state’s agriculture community into jeopardy will make it that much harder for New Yorkers across the state to have easy and reliable access to affordable produce,” said Cynthia Haskins, President & CEO, New York Apple Association.
“New York is home to a vibrant agriculture industry and our local communities are in place to support farmers with necessary services and programs. A reduced overtime threshold will dramatically alter the face of agriculture in New York, including our rural communities which are very much dependent on a vibrant production sector. It would be a irrevocable loss to our communities if New York farms were forced to produce only non-labor intensive crops like corn and soybeans. We cannot let this happen,” said Danielle Penny Stroop, President, Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance.
To support the coalition’s efforts, an advertising and advocacy campaign will kick off next month.
For more information on the group’s efforts, please visit https://grownyfarms.com/.
Local farm owners and farmworkers are available to speak about the impact of the Wage Board’s decision and what it would mean for the industry.