Small farmers say new labor bill is overly burdensome

Farmworkers rally for overtime pay and other changes to farm labor laws at the state Capitol. Legislative Gazette file photo.

Family farmers are speaking out against a labor bill they say could put many of them out of business.

Passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (S.2837/A.2750) that has been introduced in the Senate and Assembly Labor Committees would increase labor costs on New York farms by 17 percent, or a combined $299 million a year, according to an analysis of the legislation by Farm Credit East, a lending, leasing and payroll services company that serves farms in seven states.

The bill in question would restrict farmworkers to an eight hour work day and a 40-hour work week, and mandate overtime pay of one and one-half times the normal rate. According to Farm Credit East, this would take a significant bite out of net farm income, as the typical workday on a farm can vary greatly depending on the season and weather conditions.

“We are totally depending on mother nature,” said Brian Reeves, of Reeves Farms in Baldwinsville, Onondaga County, adding that any given day can be cut short due to poor conditions, leaving the next day longer to make up for lost time.

Reeves, like many other family farmers, is concerned he would not be able to afford this increase in labor costs. In order to continue to keep his business alive, he would be forced to cap his work week at 40 hours for each employee.

Reeves is also concerned the legislation would have the unintended consequence of forcing workers to farms in other states. “They’ll go to Wisconsin or Michigan, where they can work 70 hours a week. [The bill] is counter-productive to what they can do and what they can earn.”

Onondaga County farmer Brian Reeves. Legislative Gazette photo.

In addition to the overtime pay requirement, the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act would also grant collective bargaining rights to farm laborers; make them eligible for unemployment insurance; require that the sanitary code applies to all farmworker housing, regardless of the number of occupants; and provide them workers’ compensation benefits.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan.

According to the Farm Credit East report, net farm income would drop by 23 percent if farmworker pay is increased in conjunction with the existing statewide minimum wage hike. Some of the state’s more labor-intensive commodities would take an even bigger hit financially.

For example, vegetable growers will see net farm income decline by 43 percent. Greenhouse and nursery operations will have a 58 percent drop. Fruit growers will take a 74 percent hit. And dairy farms, will see net farm income completely wiped out with a 101 percent drop. These numbers are based on a five-year average of financial results.

“We understand supporters of this bill mean well. We also mean well. We greatly appreciate the contributions our farmworkers make to our farms and our food supply, but these numbers demonstrate that it will be incredibly difficult for farms to meet the proposed labor mandates,” said Farm Bureau President David Fisher. “It would be difficult for farms to compete in the marketplace when they can’t control their prices and must take what the markets demand.”

Another family farm owner, Sarah Dressel, of Dressel Farms in New Paltz, Ulster County, shares the concern of losing her employees, many of whom are H-2A visa guest workers. With a wage of $13 per hour, overtime pay would increased to $20 per hour in addition to higher employment taxes and the room and board she provides her workers.

“Workers that come through the H-2A program want to work as many hours as they can within their contract dates, and I’m seriously concerned that we will lose some help that has been coming for years when we have to cut the amount of hours they can work so that we can be economically sustainable,” Dressel said.

“I’m the fourth generation to work my family farm, and I have serious concerns about the future of our orchard, and agriculture in general. Regulations and rising costs of doing business in New York are contrary to the prices that the national and global markets will allow,” Dressel said.

Sarah Dressel of Dressel Farms in New Paltz. Legislative Gazette photo.

New York Farm Bureau Public Policy Director Jeff Williams said the group is having conversations with State Senators Jessica Ramos, the Senate bill sponsor, and Jen Metzger, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to work out an agreeable compromise.

While the Farm Bureau opposes the overtime restrictions of this bill, there are other aspects that they feel are important and would like to see passed into law. Included in the farmworker labor bill is a required 24 consecutive hour rest period to be offered to employees that the Farm Bureau has supported in recent years. Williams said this rest period has been “lost in the clamor of the whole package,” but is nevertheless important.

Additionally, the Farm Bureau says it is a myth that farms do not pay workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance.

“We want lawmakers to take a hard look at the numbers,” says Williams, “Rural New York matters.”