The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act passed in the New York State Legislature Wednesday after several conditions in the bill were changed, and is expected to be signed into law soon by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The bill grants basic worker protections to farm workers that haven’t been available to them before, such as time-and-a-half pay after 60 hours of work, a state-mandated option to take a day off each week if a worker chooses, and also the right to collective bargaining, although farm workers will not have the right to strike.
Several local farmers told The Leader the bill is going to hurt their industry's bottom line at a time when there are many financial and logistical challenges facing it, such as ongoing trade wars with China driving down the cost of domestic agricultural goods. The industry just recently dodged a trade war with Mexico after President Trump declined to impose tariffs on the U.S.'s southern neighbor at the eleventh hour.
Paul Wolcott, who operates Lent Hill Dairy Farm in Cohocton, is concerned about costs increasing in the near future due to the legislation, which reflects a growing trend of farmer concerns statewide. Wolcott’s dairy farm is home to about 2,400 cows that produce approximately 140,000 pounds of milk per day. One of his main customers is Greek yogurt producer Chobani.
Wolcott retains about 40 employees to help him operate the farm. He said he’s calculated that his labor costs -- his second largest expense -- will increase by 25-30 percent under the conditions of the bill.
Under the original proposal, overtime pay would have kicked in after 40 hours, but lawmakers compromised by increasing that threshold to 60 hours.
Wolcott said an additional 20 hours is a welcome compromise, but that his farm will still feel greater financial pressure than before.
“It is good that they compromised and changed the hours, that will help. But from a competitive businessperson’s perspective, we’d really rather that they completely leave it alone,” he said. “It’s in our best interest to take care of our employees, they’re our biggest asset. We really don’t need somebody telling us that’s what we need to do. We don’t need it mandated.”
Wolcott said he’s not concerned with other conditions in the bill, such as the right to collective bargaining. Wolcott is among many farmers statewide primarily concerned with their production costs increasing as a result of the overtime statute.
“It doesn’t really matter if [employees] organize or not. If our guys are unhappy, most of the time they’re not going to stay. We keep our guys happy anyway,” he said. “But it’ll still raise the costs of production and make it more difficult to compete with our competition.”
Tonya Van Slyke, Executive Director of the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, agreed that farmers’ hesitancy about the bill mostly comes from the overtime pay provision.
“The overtime is the biggest issue,” she said. “There are some things in the bill that farmers are already doing, so there’s a lot of the bill that are non-issues for us.”
Wolcott said some of his workers could easily hit more than 60 hours a week due to the conditions of farm work itself, which typically requires attention 24/7. He said his workers always get a day to a day-and-a-half off each week, with some occasionally getting several days off at a time.
“Typically some of our people that work with the cows, sometimes they’ll get in close to 70 hours a week. And of course the fact that it is seven days a week, that’s how they get that many hours,” he said. “It’s just not an occupation that you can do in 40 hours a week.”
This was a sentiment shared by Chemung County Farm Bureau President Asher Terwilliger, who said the nature of farm work is more akin to driving a tractor-trailer -- long hours until the job is done.
“Agriculture’s not exactly like working a regular eight-hour-a-day job,” he said. “When you have to do something, you have to do it. With commodity prices the way they are, it’s all the more important things get done on time.”
Several other local farmers say they don’t employ enough people to be seriously constrained by overtime pay, but they know colleagues who will be.
“My personal bottom line is not going to be affected as much because I don’t have a lot of hired help. But certainly a lot of the farmers around here are going to be affected,” said Anthony Marco, a farmer based in Woodhull.
Bob Nichols of Nichols Dairy in Addison -- also a Steuben County legislator -- said he only maintains one full-time and four part-time staff. But he said farmers managing bigger farms could be driven to invest in automation if their labor costs become unmanageable.
“One of two things is going to happen. It’s going to stay a smaller farm where the family can do all the work themselves and hire very little help, or you’re going to have to mechanize with robots because I don’t think you’re going to be able to afford this thing you’re talking about doing,” Nichols said.
Although initially very expensive, he said automated machinery is easier to stomach when you consider cost savings over the long term.
“It’s a big investment, but you have to look at the numbers," Nichols said.
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning, was among virtually all Republicans based in upstate farm communities who disapprove of the bill. He said farm costs statewide will increase by hundreds of millions as a result.
“This bill would be devastating to the family farm in New York state,” he said. “[The bill] would increase farm labor costs by $300 million, or 20 percent. And it would have a subsequent decrease across the board of net farm income by 23 percent.”
Palmesano said even with the last-minute changes, the bill will still "devastate" New York's family farms.
A GROWING ADVOCACY
Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, D-Bronx, chairman of the Assembly's Standing Committee on Labor and an advocate for the farm labor bill, said the bill was aimed at addressing the experiences brought forward by farm workers throughout the past few decades. A version of the legislation has floated around the state Legislature for more than 20 years before it was passed this week.
Crespo said while he and other lawmakers have seen and visited farms that treat workers with “tremendous” respect, there are stories lawmakers have heard from workers, many of them immigrants, who’ve faced extreme pressures from their jobs, wage abuses and hazardous conditions because of the lack of labor protections they’re afforded.
“We’re not suggesting that it is pervasive, but it has occurred enough where there had been a growing advocacy over those decades to try to create better protections and address the exemption in labor protections for farm workers,” said Crespo. “[Farm workers are] one of the only categories of workers that were denied those protections many years ago by the federal government, and our state has modeled its labor protections with those same exemptions.”
Crespo added that workers depend on the farms that employ them just as much as farmers depend on the workers they employ. The goal is not to punish or put farms out of business, he said, but to grant farm workers reasonable protections that have already existed for other workers throughout the state for decades now.
“We feel strongly that it is the right thing to do to make sure that every business and worker in our state operates in a system where workers are protected, where they have the right to collectively bargain, where they’re afforded a proper wage, and where they’re provided safety and the right benefits,” he said.
“This has been the impetus to try to find the solution to several decades of discussion.”
Crespo said Democratic lawmakers took into consideration the feedback provided by farmers and state agriculture advocates regarding how farms operate. The result was a bill that saw several compromises, such as the introduction of a no-strike clause so farms don’t experience a labor stoppage that results in loss of crops and livestock.
There was also the compromise that raised the cap on hours for overtime.
“We were asking for 40 hours as a trigger for overtime. There was a lot of feedback on the impractical nature of that number as it relates to the typical hours worked on a farm and the difficulty that would impose,” said Crespo.
“It was made very clear that the [40-hour] overtime provisions were going to have a tremendous financial impact.”
However, the bill also includes language for the establishment of a three-member wage board that will assess whether to keep or lower that number. Any recommendations would then be presented to the state Department of Labor, which would then make a decision in consultation with the state agriculture commissioner.
Officials said the wage board is required to hold its first hearing by March 2020.