September 1, 2020
From State Senator George Borrello:
As the Farm Laborers Wage Board holds hearings on the 60-hour overtime threshold for farmworkers, Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt and Senator George Borrello joined colleagues and members of the farming community in calling for freezing the threshold at its current level to enable the collection of more data on the mandate’s impact. Senator Borrello, Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 8944, that would delay the board’s recommendation until 2024.
“When New York City Democrats forced this law on Upstate farmers, we said it would have a devastating impact and it must be fully repealed. Here we are just eight months into its implementation, during one of the worst seasons farmers have seen, and already a wage board is contemplating making even more harmful changes to hours employees can work. This decision, especially in light of COVID-19, must be delayed so that insight can be gained over a lengthy period of time as to how seasons and conditions change from year to year. To make a determination now would just harm our already suffering family farms and their hard workers,” said Leader Ortt.
“Farms in New York State have not yet completed even a single growing season under the mandates of this burdensome new law, which took effect on January 1, 2020. They are still grappling with the changes and trying different strategies to comply with the 60-hour threshold while trying to keep their operations afloat. It is incomprehensible that they are already being confronted with the possibility that the threshold will be lowered even further,” said Senator Borrello.
“Additionally, the COVID-19 crisis created fresh financial hardships for farmers and unprecedented disruptions to the food supply chain. Not only would it be terribly unfair to add to their difficulties right now, this season has been anomaly, so it would be a mistake to base any long-term decisions on this year’s experiences. For these and so many reasons, we need to hit the pause button on this premature effort to evaluate a brand new law,” he added. “While repeal of the law is the ultimate goal, our effort right now is to prevent further damage and bring common sense to this issue by delaying any decision on the 60-hour threshold until 2024.”
Passed in 2019, the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act granted year-round and seasonal farm employees many of the same labor rights and benefits as workers in other industries. Those rights included collective bargaining, housing protections, enhanced worker’s compensation protection and overtime pay of one and a half times an employee’s regular wages after 60 hours of work per week and/or if they choose to work on a designated day of rest.
The bill also mandated that the state Labor Commissioner establish a farmworkers’ wage board to examine the overtime pay threshold and consider whether it should be lowered even further. The current three-member board includes former New York State AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes, Buffalo Urban League President Brenda McDuffie and New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher.
Despite the insistence of struggling farmers across the state that the measure could put them out of business, and projections from farm industry associations showing that the measure could increase wage expenses by a crippling 44 percent, a coalition of activists and downstate lawmakers pushed the bill forward. The Governor signed the bill into law on July 17, 2019 in Manhattan.
The legislation introduced by Senator Borrello and co-sponsored by Senators Ortt, Helming, Jordan and Serino, would extend the date that the wage board’s report must be submitted from December 31, 2020 to December 31, 2024. This would allow for the collection of four years of data to provide a truer picture of the impact of the 60-hour threshold on the finances and operations of New York farms. Senator Borrello noted that “so many factors can completely destroy a farm’s bottom line in a given year, whether it’s trade issues, weather events, or, as we know all too well this year, a pandemic.”
The measure would also require the board to consider additional factors in its decision-making, including wage and overtime rates in neighboring states, the impact that COVID-19 has had on the agricultural industry, total compensation, including other benefits such as housing and insurance, and the supply and demand of farm employees.