The following letter to the editor was originally published on September 12, 2022. The article…
ALBANY, NY – Today, farmers from the Grow NY Farms coalition travelled from across New York to the state’s Capitol to hand-deliver hundreds of letters to Governor Kathy Hochul. The letters, written by both farmers and farmworkers whose livelihoods are threatened by the potential lowering of the overtime threshold, urge the Governor and a New York State Wage Board to uphold the current threshold standards that were established under the 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. They were joined in Albany by Assemblymembers Billy Jones, Carrie Woerner and Chris Tague.
The group’s delivery is another step in Grow NY Farms’ statewide campaign to bring awareness to the detrimental impact a lower threshold would have on the agriculture community. The coalition has hosted farm tours in Western New York, Central New York, the Capital Region, the North County and Long Island as part of a unified statewide effort to maintain the 60-hour overtime threshold for farmworkers.
“Today, our ask is simple and the consequences are clear. Governor Hochul must hear the calls from the agriculture community and New York State must uphold the overtime threshold for the industry. We are telling you bluntly — our farms will not be able to withstand a further reduction to the overtime threshold and our workers will leave,” said Brian Reeves of Reeves Farms in Onondaga County.
Prior to the adoption of the 60-hour overtime threshold, the industry standard for farmworkers was 80 hours during peak seasons. This practice reflected the fact that the agricultural industry includes labor-intensive periods during harvests and for the constant care of animals, factors outside of the control of farmers. The lowering of the threshold to 60 hours served as a compromise, finding a workable solution for farmers and farmworkers. Anything below 60 hours would render that compromise a sham and devastation for the industry.
As some agricultural work is seasonal, many farmworkers still seek to work as many hours as possible when the work is available. A further reduction of the overtime threshold will reduce their already limited opportunity to work. Moreover, any reduction threatens farmers’ ability to afford workers during the peak season and consequently the ability to operate these farms at all. The workers who want more hours will simply go to other states — like Michigan, Ohio or Pennsylvania — where they can work more and earn more.
“I recently joined with a number of my Majority colleagues in sending a letter to Governor Hochul regarding maintaining the overtime threshold at 60 hours. Our many farm tours have revealed a perilous set of conditions facing NY agriculture; conditions that were made infinitely worse by the pandemic. Listening to farmers and farmworkers alike, it’s clear that all parts of the food supply chain are stressed and under-paid. Systemic change is needed to stabilize and strengthen the entire industry, rather than what I fear will amount to a devastating blow,” said Assemblymember Donna Lupardo, Chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee.
“New York State farmers have faced unprecedented challenges during the last few years. And while the legislature took crucial measures to help support our small and mid-sized farms through the COVID pandemic, our state’s agricultural economy is still very vulnerable. Operating costs are soaring; longtime farmers are aging; and deep-pocketed developers are eyeing prime farmland for everything from housing to distribution centers to solar arrays. I strongly encourage the State Labor Board to keep the current overtime threshold for farm workers at sixty hours to provide our essential farmworkers with fair compensation, while ensuring that New York’s many small and mid-sized family farms can stabilize, plan for the future and continue to put fresh, nutritious food on our table,” said Assemblymember Didi Barrett.
“When factoring an increased minimum wage and an effort to reduce the overtime threshold, it has been estimated that New York farmers would see their labor costs jump by more than 40%. A sudden spike in costs like that could threaten any industry. Our farmers not only provide nourishing food, they are collectively responsible for 200,000 jobs statewide, with a $50 billion impact on the state’s economy. It is critical that we hear the concerns brought forward by our farming community, and that we protect what is such an important part of the state’s economy,” said Assemblymember Marianne Buttenschon.
“It is critical that the overtime threshold of 60 hours for farmworkers is maintained. As a former dairy farmer, and in talking with farmers throughout the state, I understand the devastating impact that lowering this threshold would have. Due to the nature of seasonal work in our agricultural industry, lowering this threshold would not only increase labor costs but would further increase the impacts of the workforce shortage that we are seeing across the state and country. During the pandemic, farmers across the state helped provide New Yorkers with a reliable source of fresh food and we should not be looking to make it more difficult for them to operate. Farmworkers overwhelming oppose lowering the overtime threshold, and I call on the Farm Laborers Wage Board to listen to them and maintain the 60-hour overtime threshold when they meet later this year,” said Assemblymember Billy Jones.
“The economic realities for agricultural producers are based on growing seasons and the needs of their animals, neither of which conform to a typical 40-hour work week. The overtime rules for farmworkers must reflect this reality. The value of New York farms is undisputed, and the state should be supporting farmers and those who work for them in ways that assure producers can continue to provide fresh local milk, cheese, and produce. The New York State Wage Board must recognize the unique needs of the agricultural workplace and agricultural workers as well as the value of farmers when it revisits the overtime rules for farmworkers,” said Assemblymember Carrie Woerner.
“I cannot stress enough that lowering the farm laborer overtime threshold would imperil our small and family farms unlike any policy ever implemented before,” said Tague. “The lowering of the threshold could close farms, raise prices at the grocery store and jeopardize our state’s food security. If the farms where these laborers work are forced to shut down, we will have helped nobody. This proposal is rooted in a lack of understanding about the nature of farm work, because it is not a predictable 9-to-5 job. And if farmers are forced to run their businesses as if they were, they will not be able to afford to stay in business,” said Assemblymember Chris Tague.
“The agriculture community is once again standing united to have our voices heard. We are asking for the compromise reached in good faith and established in 2019 to be honored. Our farms compete in a global economy. Lowering the overtime threshold will put us at such a competitive disadvantage. Many farmworkers will leave for states where hours are not restricted and farms will contemplate if continuing their operations in New York is the right decision,” said Eric Ooms, Columbia County dairy farmer and NYFB Vice President.
In October, leading agriculture institute Farm Credit East, issued a report finding that a 40-hour overtime threshold will ultimately crush the agriculture sector in New York State, with impacts extending beyond industry to local community. The potential increased labor costs combined with past and scheduled increases in the minimum wage would impact the financial viability of many farms by significantly increasing costs, reducing net farm income and cash flow. Key findings estimate mandatory overtime pay at the 40-hour threshold for agricultural employees in New York State would result in increased agricultural labor costs of approximately $264 million per year, an increase of 42%. The industry could not survive with that.
Later this month the New York State Wage Board will revisit the 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act’s 60-hour overtime threshold for farmworkers and determine if an adjustment to 40 hours will be necessary. For more information on the group’s efforts, please visit https://grownyfarms.com/.