By STEVE BITTENBENDER
THE CENTER SQUARE CONTRIBUTOR
(The Center Square) — New York’s agricultural community is calling on state Commissioner of Labor Roberta Reardon to reject a recommendation she received from the Farm Laborers Wage Board to reduce the overtime trigger for farm workers from 60 hours per week to 40.
The three-person board voted late Monday afternoon in a split decision to present a plan to gradually reduce the threshold by four hours every two years, starting on Jan. 1, 2024. That means the 40-hour limit would not be in place until 2032.
Ms. Reardon has 45 days to make her decision.
The no vote on the Wage Board was Farm Bureau President David Fisher, who lamented that the “awkward process” of virtual meetings prevented him, former Buffalo Urban League President Brenda McDuffie and former New York State AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes from having substantial talks or even visiting a farm.
Mr. Fisher also acknowledged the “cards were stacked against” the Farm Bureau’s stance.
The 21-page report also pointed out that the average New York farm worker made $39,137. That’s less than half the average salary of $84,739 for New York workers across all private-sector businesses.
Mr. Fisher rebutted that as an apples-to-oranges comparison because most farm workers are seasonal, working between four to eight months each year. Those workers also receive “unique benefits,” such as free housing, food from the farms, and transportation.
“This report paints a picture of farm worker protections that is really not grounded in the truth,” he said.
The report also noted a presentation by Chris Laughton of Farm Credit East that indicated lowering the overtime threshold to 40 hours would cause labor costs to jump by 42% while reducing farm income by 20%.
State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, blasted the report, calling it “a monumental disaster” that will lead to many small family farms shutting down for good. Setting a 40-hour cap would also lead workers to go to other states where they could work longer and make more.
He added that hundreds of farmers and workers made these points clear to the board.
“Sadly, their voices fell on deaf ears, and once again, the political ruling class in Albany ignored those directly impacted by this decision,” Sen. Ortt said in a statement.
Ms. Reardon established the board as part of a 2019 farm labor law passed by the state legislature that initially set the overtime threshold at 60 hours and gave farm workers other rights, including access to collective bargaining, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.
Tuesday’s vote was somewhat procedural since the board approved the recommendations in January. The board has been working on the report since then.
In that time, Gov. Kathy Hochul has discussed offering tax credits to help farmers offset the expense the new overtime threshold would create.
According to the report, other states have taken similar measures to reduce the overtime threshold. In California, the 40-hour requirement will be in place for all farm workers starting in 2025. Hawaii has a 40-hour limit but allows farmers to raise it to 48 hours for 20 weeks during the year.
The state of Washington also has a 40-hour threshold but only for dairy farmers.