Cortland County officials, advocates offer clashing takes on farm labor policies

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The Cortland County Legislature unanimously approved a resolution of advocacy last week to be sent to the office of multiple county representatives in Albany in support of keeping the overtime threshold for farm laborers at 60-hours a week. It’s a potential limit that could be reduced before the end of the year by New York labor officials.

The threshold, which farmworkers and labor advocacy groups across New York have fiercely fought to lower down to 40 hours per week, has seen increased scrutiny since the passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act in 2019. The bill guarantees farmworkers collective bargaining rights, one mandated weekly day of rest, 60-hour work week limits, and eligibility for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation for farm laborers working in any of New York’s 33,400 farms (an estimate calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)). 

Due to pressure from farm labor advocacy groups and state civil rights watchdogs, the state’s Wage Board is set to revisit the overtime threshold, which advocates hope will be paired down to a regular 40-hour overtime threshold seen in most other industries. These changes would also affect all farms in the state, including the 536 farms estimated by the USDA in 2017 (their most recent farm census).

The county legislature has opposed changes to changes to the overtime threshold from the get-go, but recently ramped up its efforts to lobby for the limit to remain at 60 hours. The resolution was sent to both legislative chambers in the state, Gov. Kathy Hochul, Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca), State Sen. Peter Oberacker (R-Schenevus), Assemblymember John Lemondes Jr. (R-Lafayette) and the state’s Farm Bureau. 

The resolution comes as the Wage Board is set to make a decision on the overtime threshold before the year ends, as well as the surfacing of increased advocacy efforts from private groups representing the interests of farmers in the state.

“We need to allow farms to be the engine they are for our community,” County Legislature Minority Leader Beau Harbin (D-LD 2) said during an Agriculture, Environmental and Planning Committee meeting earlier this month. “These changes (to the threshold) would change that. We want to make sure we are fair to our farmers.”

Harbin, who toured Cortland County farms alongside fellow members of the legislature earlier this year, said some farmers in the county oppose the threshold. He cited market factors that make it difficult for them to pay overtime to farmworkers under the same guidelines as many other industries do. Harbin continued by saying that farmers noted their farms are already struggling with issues such as the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic, a struggling dairy industry, worker shortages, and the fact that they cannot set their own dairy prices. Dairy farms make up the bulk of farms in Cortland County, according to the USDA.

For Mike McMahon, the owner and operator of McMahon EZ Acres in East Homer, those hardships depict a grim reality. It has dairy farms working along “razor-thin margins,” McMahon added.

“Since the bill was approved, payroll costs have increased 23 percent, and are projected to raise 8 percent just this next year,” McMahon said during a county legislature meeting last week. “It has been tough, but agriculture has adapted. For any dairy farm, labor is the second-largest expense. Even if in this tough labor market we could find enough workers to accommodate the lower overtime threshold, we would face the additional challenge of expanding costs.”

According to the legislature’s resolution, central New York farmers have also seen an increase of more than 37 percent on the cost of feed and more than 50 percent in fuel costs over the last year.

“I am not quite clear… why downstate can’t get it,” said legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-LD 3). “In addition to our written words, they need to hear us, see us and know why this is an important issue.”

The New York Farm Bureau (NYFB) has long warned about the effects of reducing the overtime threshold.

“Please know that if the overtime threshold for New York farm workers is lowered to a level below 60 hours per week, the face of New York agriculture will be irreparably altered and we will no longer remain economically competitive in the crops and commodities that require a labor force,” stated in a letter sent to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year by the NYFB.

A Complex Issue

For advocates, although they acknowledge the state of agriculture is a complex issue, granting farm workers labor protections that are common practice in other industries should be simple. 

In a joint statement, Lisa Zucker, New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) Senior Attorney for Legislative Affairs, and Simon McCormack, NYCLU Senior Communications Writer, noted economic hardships should not be used as an excuse to deny farm laborers fair treatment under labor laws.

“If the survival of small farms is a problem that needs to be addressed, the answer cannot be the continued exploitation of workers,” noted in the joint statement. “Perhaps these economically precarious farms should advocate for a larger or additional share of the tens of millions of dollars our state spends every year to subsidize farmers; money that is allocated for items like research and development, environmental compliance, promotion of New York’s agriculture industry, and tax credits. Whatever is done to help these farms must not come at the expense of the essential workers who are already underpaid, underappreciated, and critically important for our society.”

According to the NYCLU, farms in the Empire State brought in a gross cash income of $6,287,480,00 in 2019, before the overtime threshold of 60 hours a week came into effect. In 2020, the organization claims, gross cash income increased to $6,553,493,000.

LRichard Witt, the executive director of the Rural Migrant Ministry in New York, spoke on the history of farm labor issues in the state during an interview with The Cortland Voice.

“We have a history in New York where agriculture is dependent upon labor subsidizing the agricultural entities,” Witt said. “I don’t think we want to have a system where its survival is dependent on people being treated unequally or unfairly. Whether they be farm workers or farmers, this needs to be the starting point of this conversation.”

Witt’s nonprofit organization helps migrant and rural workers fight unjust systems and structures. He said that while there are examples of farm workers advocating for a higher overtime threshold, the voices of farm laborers who want a more standard work week have been suppressed.

“There are other workers who have stepped up and said they want to spend more time with their family or simply want some rest and relaxation,” he said. “There is nothing to stop the farmworkers from working more hours once the threshold is lowered. It is just that the farmers will have to pay overtime.”

Witt said that dairy farmers don’t make the whole picture of agriculture in New Yor;, but are often used by lobbying groups to emphasize the need for a 60-hour overtime threshold. 

“This is a complex discussion. It is not as simple as saying: ‘if this bill lowers the threshold, then New York agriculture is going to — in one fell swoop be harmed or diminished,’” Witt said. “Ultimately, all this also comes down to consumers. Our experience is, when consumers hear that farmers are paying fair wages and treating people equally and with justice, consumers are willing to support those farms.”