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Major change sought in overtime rule which farms say will force some to close their doors | Local news

ALBANY – The already endangered New York family farm faces what farm owners say is a worrying danger at the hands of the state government: significantly higher labor costs.

It comes at a time when farmers are still grappling with the economic effect of Covid and turbulence in supply lines for the products they need to run their businesses, in addition to dealing with the more typical uncertainties regarding staff shortages, the prices set by the market for the crops they grow or the animals they raise and – as always – the weather.

The problem is pressure to lower the threshold for the number of hours a farm worker works to get overtime – from 60 hours now to maybe 40 hours.

Supporters of the idea say it is a fundamental argument about fairness and workers’ rights.

“For most workers, paying overtime after 40 hours was a victory over 80 years ago, but shockingly for farm workers it is an ongoing battle,” said Mario Cilento. , President of the AFL-CIO.

But farm owners say it’s economically simple: New York’s farms wouldn’t be able to compete with other states – which already have lower employment costs and lower taxes – if the overtime threshold is lowered. And industry estimates are that labor costs would increase by 17% if the overtime threshold was raised to 40 hours.

“The idea of ​​lowering the threshold is, by far, the biggest challenge I have ever faced in my 30 years of farming,” David Zittel, president of Amos Zittel and Sons, a large farm in vegetable and greenhouse production in Eden in Erie County, told reporters on Capitol Hill this week. He was one of half a dozen farmers who traveled from across the state to deliver letters asking Governor Kathy Hochul to kill the idea of ​​the lower threshold.

During harvest seasons, 80-hour work weeks were not uncommon for farm laborers, thousands of whom are migrant workers from Latin America and the Caribbean to whom farms across the north turn every year. State because too few domestic workers want to work on farms.

80-hour weeks changed with a 2019 law, the subject of a two-decade lobbying battle, that required overtime pay for work over 60 hours per week and a full day of mandatory leave per week .

A last-minute change in the 2019 legislation also required that a three-person board meet again before December 15 to consider changing the threshold to 40 hours per week. The board of directors is made up of the head of the State Farm Bureau, a trading group for the agricultural industry; a former president of the AFL-CIO; and Brenda McDuffie, former president of the Buffalo Urban League.

The Farm Workers’ Wages Commission is expected to rule on the issue by the end of the month. His action would be a non-binding recommendation to the state labor commissioner, who could reject or accept their ideas. Ideas could range from doing nothing; lowering the threshold to 40 to 60 hours; create different levels of overtime depending on the size of a farm; or, as is the case in California, start a one-year transition period up to 40 hours.

In response to the 2019 law, many farmers have banned workers from working more than 60 hours per week in order to avoid paying overtime. This has upset some workers, who work grueling hours for a few months every year to make more money.

Workers process and package the cabbages at Russell Farms in Appleton on Thursday.

Mark Mulville / Buffalo News

Farmers say if the threshold drops to 40 hours, they will have to ban anyone from working more than 40 hours. This could pose problems for New York farmers in attracting migrant workers, who come to the United States under the federal H-2A program; these workers could simply move to another state to work longer.

“Forty hours is not enough to live,” said Ruben Gomar, who worked on a Niagara County farm for 30 years, returning to Mexico each year for about two months around the Christmas holidays. Between his housing costs, his taxes and his raising of four children, Gomar fears that the lure of a higher salary due to overtime will not come true because farmers simply cannot afford it.

“Farms don’t like to pay overtime because few of them make a lot of money,” he said in an interview. “I like it like that.”

But a worker at a Cayuga County dairy farm disagreed and said the 60-hour workweeks with no overtime were not good for employees’ health or family lives. . “Reducing the threshold from 60 hours to 40 hours would make a big positive difference in the lives of all farm workers. For example, in my case, it would definitely help me be a better husband and father to my kids as it would allow me to spend more time with them, ”said the worker, who provided a written statement to The Buffalo News. on condition of anonymity.

Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat from Queens who chairs the Senate Labor Committee and sponsored the 2019 Farm Workers Bill, said that a 40-hour week “is a core value that we hold in this other country”. She noted the change to 40 hours before overtime applies in California and Washington.

“Finding a path for a 40-hour week for farm workers in New York is essential, and I hope the wages board finds a solid timeline,” she said this week.

Cilento, the president of the AFL-CIO, said he understands the unpredictability of the agricultural industry and that employees may have to work long hours. He said, however, that sectors such as construction, retail and manufacturing are also subject to seasonal and weather factors, but these workers are working overtime from 40 hours. He said agricultural workers deserve “the same dignity and respect” as others and that the wages board should approve the lower threshold to “fairly compensate agricultural workers for the essential and often physically exhausting work they do. “.

Other supporters say farmers, like other business people, need to plan their operations better to be able to pay workers overtime. Hours could be reduced, but many workers’ wages would increase under the 40-hour plan.

“Farm owners may need to make some adjustments. They may have to pay a little more or ask people to work a little less. But good farmers should be able to do the job without exploiting workers, ”said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative.

Kallick’s group and others have previously estimated that a threshold of 40 overtime would equate to 9% of net farm income.

Farmers say economy makes OT plan unworkable

Farmers say that kind of number will force them out of business. The reaction to the 60-hour threshold, in addition to capping the number of hours per week, has led many farmers to hire more workers as well to avoid the overtime threshold. Some have had to build more temporary housing. Some have had to leave more fruit and vegetables unpicked, a cheaper option than paying overtime, several said in interviews.

Jim Bittner, who started as a dairy farmer in 1980, runs Bittner-Singer Orchards in Appleton, Niagara County, a 400-acre farm that produces apples, cherries and peaches. One of its workers is Gomar, a longtime farm worker from Mexico.

Agricultural wages

Jim Bittner in his cherry orchard on his farm in Appleton. He fears that a change in state law could devastate New York’s agriculture industry.

Mark Mulville / Buffalo News

Bittner said farmers have adjusted to the 2019 law. But lowering it further will mean fewer hours for workers. This will deter some from coming to New York farms for temporary work; for domestic agricultural workers, this could force them to find a second job elsewhere to make up the difference. Most of the time, however, farmers say this could make certain operations impossible to perform.

Bittner said a drop in overtime to 40 or 50 hours would force him to cut workers’ maximum hours in a week. He may also need to switch his farming business to crops that are less labor-intensive than a fruit farm, where half the cost is spent on labor in a fully hand-picked operation.

Operations like dairy farms, for example, may be less affected by the change; some of them were able to cope with labor shortages with less reliance on human labor through the use of robots to milk cows.

David Zittel, the vegetable and greenhouse production farmer at Eden Farm who is now part of his fifth family farm generation, said in an interview that he has around 40 workers a year and hires around 100 seasonal employees, 80 of whom are from the H-2A migrant program.

Think about squash, Zittel says. It is a crop that should be picked every day when ripe. It means having enough work at that time to do it. If the orders can’t be filled, that means the big customers are going elsewhere. If he has to pay overtime, the margins don’t work according to how farming works in the market.

Doing math in his head as he drove to Albany last week to deliver written pleadings to Hochul, Zittel estimated that lowering the threshold to 40 hours would cost his farm $ 500,000 per year in labor costs. additional. That’s an unattainable figure, he said, preventing even a basic reinvestment in his farm for spending on equipment and other infrastructure.

Farmers like Zittel wonder if state officials understand farm economics and how the change in overtime would make New York’s farmers less competitive.

Zittel also hopes officials understand the rules of the H-2A program. A worker coming every year from Mexico or Jamaica has a contract to work only on his farm. If Zittel cut their hours, these workers couldn’t just get another day or two of work on another farm or a shift in a restaurant or other location.

“They are there to work. They want the hours, ”he said.