The following letter to the editor was originally published on September 12, 2022. The article…
December is familiar territory when it comes to deciding the fate of the 60-hour farm labor overtime threshold. As you may recall, the New York State Farm Labor Wage Board voted two-to-one last New Year’s Eve to table the decision for a year due to the lack of clear understanding of the impact of a lower threshold on all involved and the uncertainty created by the pandemic. Not much has changed and the decision may soon be before us again as I am one of three members on the board.
The decision is a monumental one for agriculture. New York Farm Bureau and our agricultural partners in the Grow NY Farms coalition have long maintained that we must stay at 60-hours, a compromise that labor unions, farmers, farmworkers, and lawmakers reached just two years ago as a workable number. This law also gave farmworkers the right to collectively bargain for the hours and wages they seek. Currently, New York farmworkers average around $17/hour and often receive free housing and transportation, in addition to more traditional benefits.
Farmers, our employees, and our communities all depend on having a viable agricultural sector. A 40-hour threshold would drastically change that. Farm Credit East outlined in a comprehensive report that labor costs would climb 17-percent and, when combined with the rising minimum wage, would wipe out 50 to 100 percent of a farm’s net income, depending on the commodity and farm. The report added that higher labor costs would also disincentivize growth of our farms and the agricultural economy. This would have a spinoff impact on our food processors and support businesses that rely on our farms.
I understand that this is a challenging issue. The men and women who work on our farms are invaluable to what we do and to our food supply. They deserve the very best, but the way our system works makes it hard for farms to dramatically increase production costs with no way to recoup those costs or pass them along to our customers. Produce and nursery growers compete in the marketplace where buyers look for the lowest prices. Dairy prices are controlled by a federal formula where farmers have no say in what they receive for their milk when it leaves the farm. Moreover, farmers are at the tail end of the receiving line, earning only eight cents for every dollar spent at the grocery store.
This is why farm labor overtime should be a national issue, with an even playing field for farmers across the country. We can’t keep putting New York State on an island with its regulatory policies and expect our businesses to be able to fairly compete against farms from out of state. We eventually hit a breaking point, and this is it. Comparing an agricultural work day to manufacturing or construction is simply a red herring. We deal with perishable crops, animals that need care, and a work timeline that is highly sensitive to unpredictable weather. As we say, fresh apples don’t wait to be picked and you can’t turn off a dairy cow that needs to be milked.
Ultimately, a lower threshold will lead farms to cap hours at 40, like most employers, to try and control costs. This would deny an opportunity for employees who choose to work more and will drive many of them out of state where farmworkers can work the hours they seek but don’t have the many labor protections that exist in New York. I’m afraid it will also drive some farm families to look elsewhere to make a living. This reduces opportunities as well as for the next generation of farmers.
This is the reality. Farmworker Paul Fisher, an H2A guest worker from Jamaica, told the Press Republican that he works with his two sons on a Clinton County orchard and that they will leave the state if their hours are limited to 40. That’s because many seasonal workers are only here for a few months during harvest season and seek as many hours as they can get.
Moises Penaranda, a greenhouse employee on Long Island told Newsday he is concerned about making less money with a lower threshold and the impact it will have in his home country. The extra hours he requests, according to the newspaper, “allow him to help family, friends and neighbors back home in Ecuador. In each of the past two years, he’s sent $4,000 to $5,000 to his rural village for use in buying food and other necessities.”
Alfredo Mejia, who has worked on the same farm in western New York since 1996, said in The Daily News in Batavia that he has saved enough money to buy a house and send his first son to college. A 40-hour threshold puts his mortgage and tuition for his other son in jeopardy.
“If you guys cut to 40, maybe I have to find another job so I can make enough money. I like to have 60 hours or more,” he told the newspaper.
A lower threshold will not only hurt workers but also change the face of New York agriculture. The diversity that exists here, the fruits, vegetables, dairy and more, is truly unique for most states. Our state’s consumers have so many local options of what to put on their dinner plates. But farms will change what they grow to minimize costs. It’s already happening. It requires far less labor to plant and harvest corn mechanically than hand-picked cabbage, blueberries, and peaches. The governor just signed a bill making Nourish NY a permanent program, helping to provide New York produced food to regional food banks and emergency pantries. This effort was a literal lifeline for thousands during the pandemic. But Nourish NY won’t exist if the farms are not there to supply it. Dismantling New York agriculture will greatly reduce the state’s ability to feed itself, including our most vulnerable citizens. Nobody wins.
Governor Hochul is an upstater. She has visited many of our farms. She gets what drives our rural economy and the importance of our family farms. The governor must hear from you today to reinforce that the agricultural community and our food supply need her support for them to thrive on her watch. Click here for more information on how you can help.
-David Fisher, New York Farm Bureau President, dairy farmer, and member of the New York State Farm Labor Wage Board