Farmers alarmed as NY considers OW extension for their workers | New York News

By MICHAEL HILL, Associated Press

SCHUYLERVILLE, NY (AP) — The thousands of people paid to plant corn, pick apples and milk cows in New York often work long days, six days a week — and only earn overtime after 60 hours of job.

The state is now considering lowering this overtime threshold. New York could eventually join California and Washington state in phasing in a 40-hour overtime rule for farmworkers, a common threshold in other industries.

“We need a better quality of life,” said veteran dairy worker Lazaro Alvarez. He is among those who say change is long overdue for about 55,000 farm workers in New York, many from Mexico, Guatemala and other countries outside the United States.

But the prospect worries farmers. They warn that the extra costs would wipe out marginal farms, hamper others and actually reduce workers’ incomes if farmers cap hours to manage expenses.

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“While the industry as a whole may survive, many individual farms will not,” Chris Laughton of Farm Credit East, a lender to the North East’s agricultural industry, said this month.

At Welcome Stock Farm near Saratoga Springs, Bill Peck said overtime after 40 hours for the farm’s 18 full-time employees would cost him up to $12,000 more per month. Dairy farmers like Peck say they can’t just raise prices to reflect the extra expense, since wholesale milk prices are regulated.

“We will not be able to invest in a new tractor. We won’t be able to invest in adding another barn,” Peck said. “That money will only go to payroll, which is good for them in the short term, but in the long term the business can’t survive.”

Farmers who grow vegetables and apples say they would be particularly hard hit when additional seasonal labor is needed. They say higher overtime costs will make them less competitive with farms in other states.

Farmworkers in New York were not entitled to overtime pay at all until 2020, when the state changed the law to impose extra pay on workers who exceeded 60 hours a week. The new law also tasked a three-person “wages council” with considering whether to recommend a lower threshold.

On Friday, the council holds its fourth of four hearings this month. He will make recommendations to Governor Kathy Hochul’s commissioner of labor, who may accept, reject or modify them.

The average hourly wage for farm workers in the area last year was $16.16, according to federal figures, though some earn the minimum wage of $13.20.

Alvarez, a 63-year-old man from Mexico City, said working overtime past 40 would reduce stress for workers like him and give them a better quality of life.

“I’ll be able to do checkups at the doctor’s, I’ll be able to buy personal items. I’ll have time for myself,” Alvarez said in Spanish.

The wages commission could recommend temporarily maintaining the 60-hour status quo, which it has done once before.

They could also follow California’s lead and reduce agricultural overtime levels in phases over several years. Large farms in California had to start providing overtime after 40 hours starting this year. Farms with 25 or fewer employees will hit the 40-hour mark in 2025.

Washington state approved a law last year providing overtime pay for agricultural workers.

Several other states offer some agricultural workers overtime, with limitations and exceptions. Trent Taylor, an attorney with advocacy group Farmworker Justice, said more states are considering the proposals as the nation grapples more with labor and race issues.

“We’re gaining momentum,” Taylor said.

Nationally, agricultural workers were excluded from the overtime provisions of the historic Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. At the time, the United States was only 73 years away from banning slavery. Supporters say continuing to exclude them perpetuates an injustice against a profession long dominated by people of color.

“This exclusion of agricultural workers is the very definition of what we call structural racism. It was a policy rooted in racism 85 years ago and it has become so entrenched in the system that people don’t even notice it anymore,” said Lisa Zucker, an attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Farmers argue that this well-intentioned policy would not be in the interest of the many migrant workers who come north during harvest seasons to earn as much money as possible, often only to send them home. This is because they might be forced to limit hours to mitigate overtime expenses.

“The hours will go down and there will be less take home pay for people,” said Mark Russell of Two of Clubs Orchard in western New York. He said farmers were worried about losing workers to other states.

Several farmworkers made similar arguments during their testimony this month.

While hiring more workers is a common strategy to cut overtime costs, farmers say the labor market is tight and hiring workers would force farmers to invest in more housing. Farms regularly provide free housing to workers.

Worker advocates reject the farmers’ dire predictions, noting that other industries have adapted to overtime and New York farms have already adapted to higher minimum wages and 60 hours of overtime.

“If there’s a lesson to be learned from this pandemic, it’s that those who compromise their health, safety and well-being to keep our essential industries running deserve dignity and respect,” Emma Kreyche of The Worker recently testified. Justice Center.

Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens contributed from New York.

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