Agriculture

New law requires overtime for farmworkers after 60 hours, but changes could already be coming

The New York State Department of Labor has convened a new wage board to investigate and make recommendations regarding a new law that requires farmworkers be paid overtime for the first time in history.

Under the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, farmworkers in New York are eligible for time-and-a-half overtime if they work more than 60 hours per week. The law also mandates that employers provide 24 hours of rest each week and grants eligibility for other labor protections including paid family leave, unemployment and the right to unionize and participate in collective bargaining.

The three-member wage board held its first of five public hearings in Albany Friday on the topic of reducing the threshold for overtime pay below 60 hours per week, according to state labor officials.

Additional hearings will be held this month in Syracuse and Binghamton as farmers on Long Island and in upstate Batavia prepare to testify at hearings in April.

Some members of the local farming community are puzzled by the decision to hold hearings so soon after the law went into effect.

In an interview Friday, Long Island Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter said that in other parts of the state that have year-round operations, such as the dairy industry, holding hearings might make sense. But on Long Island, he said, farmers are not active enough yet to have hired workers and set schedules.

“Most of the ag operations have not even started up yet to be able to really say ‘This is a good thing,’ or ‘This is how it’s going to affect us,’ or ‘Here’s troubles or successes we’ve seen,’ ” Mr. Carpenter said. “Farmers are still trying to grapple with what these changes really mean. It’s really way too early in the game to be figuring it out.”

In a statement issued after the reforms were approved by legislators in June, New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman described the law as “a measure of justice,” that corrects a Jim Crow-era law. “The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables must be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker,” Ms. Lieberman said.

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), who voted against the legislation, said in an interview Monday that the additional mandates are burdensome for farmers. 

“[Farmers] are already severely regulated,” he said, adding that feedback he’s received from laborers has been mixed. “They’re upset, because now they’re going to be part-time workers to get around [overtime].”

Karl Novak, general manager of Half Hollow Nursery in Laurel, said he’s not sure if he’ll speak during the public hearing on Long Island next month and agreed with Mr. Carpenter’s assertions that it’s too early.

“What are we supposed to base any of our feedback on when the law hasn’t even been in effect long enough for us to estimate or have any comprehensive data that really determines what the effect, positive or negative, is?” Mr. Novak said. “There are certain areas of our company, such as irrigation, that we need to have functioning seven days a week. So what I’ll have to do is have someone take a day off during the week, so I can have them work on Sunday and try to keep labor costs down” by not scheduling overtime, he explained.

While it’s too early to talk about impacts the bill is having on local farmers, Mr. Carpenter worries that farmers are already facing tough decisions, such as whether to grow additional crops that may not be economically viable if they require overtime hours to grow and harvest them, or hiring additional workers to control overtime costs. 

“These are all part of the unknowns we’re trying to figure out,” he said.

Mr. Novak said that the rising minimum wage — which is increasing in phases until it reaches $15 — and the new legislation puts New York farms at a “competitive disadvantage” with neighboring states that do not have such regulations.

The wage board has until the end of this year to make its recommendations to Commissioner Roberta Reardon, who will then have until February 2021 to take administrative action.

“We have an opportunity to improve the quality of life for tens of thousands of farmworkers,” Ms. Reardon said in a statement. “Overtime is a key component and we need to get it right.”

Riverhead Councilman Frank Beyrodt, who’s also executive vice president of DeLea Sod Farms, said the rising costs of labor makes running a business more difficult. “You’re essentially being told what your price will be,” said Mr. Beyrodt, a past president of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “A lot of the farmers are going to feel that.”

Still, he’s sensitive to the idea of mandatory wages. 

“Everybody should be treated fairly,” he said. 

The wage board consists of David Fisher, president of the New York Farm Bureau; former AFL-CIO union president Denis Hughes; and Brenda McDuffie, president of the Buffalo Urban League.

A hearing is set for Thursday, April 16, at Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville. Those wishing to testify before the board are encouraged to preregister at labor.ny.gov/farmwageboard.