New York State Wage Board sets up hearings on farm laborers’ overtime

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The state’s wage board will host three public hearings in January to determine the status of the overtime threshold for farm laborers in New York.

The current overtime rate for farm workers starts after 60 hours of work per week. However, the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act signed in 2019 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for the creation of the wage board to determine whether the overtime threshold should be lowered to 40 hours per week. 

Such a change would bring farm laborers on par with overtime conventions seen in most other professions. The wage board is composed of three business, labor and nonprofit leaders. It includes New York Farm Bureau president David Fisher, former New York State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) president Denis Hughes and former Buffalo Urban League president and CEO Brenda McDuffie.

New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon announced earlier in December via the state’s department of labor website that during the virtual public hearings, the wage board will “hear testimony to consider the existing overtime work threshold for farm laborers and the extent to which the overtime work threshold may be lowered in New York.”

For some local officials and farm industry leaders, lowering the threshold may bring devastating effects to the way farms operate in Cortland County. 

Hal McCabe, the Homer village mayor who works as the executive director of the New York Senate’s Legislative Commission on Rural Resources, has consulted members of the county legislature on the matter. County legislators submitted a letter to several state officials opposing the lowering of the overtime threshold in November.

“If the wage board returns a decision that lowers the overtime threshold below 60 hours, we will suffer catastrophic farm loss across New York. Losses will begin primarily in the dairy industry, but all types of agriculture will be impacted,” McCabe said. “The only ones that may weather that storm are less labor-intensive farms such as beef or cash grain operations.”

Jeff Williams, the New York Farm Bureau’s director of public policy, said labor costs are one of the many issues plaguing farmers in the state.

“We have reached a real tipping point with labor costs in New York. Going down to 40 hours for overtime is either going to drive farms to closure, drive them out of state, or workers are just going to go to other states where they can get more money,” Williams said, who added that farmers value their workers. “As much as farmers would love to pay overtime over 40 hours, they just can’t financially.”

Williams acknowledged that the tensions between financial viability for farmers, as well as rising labor costs have been ongoing for decades.

“In a perfect world we would get a systemic issue of farm viability fixed first before we do anything else. As is the case with many other commodities, farmers are making the same amount on what they sell as they were (15-to-30) years ago,” he said. “Given inflation, property taxes, regulatory compliance and labor costs, there is just not the money to invest in businesses. Farmers have stopped investing in their businesses because they are not even sure what they are going to be doing next year.”

Williams noted he believes the overtime threshold should stay at 60 hours per week until there is more time to study how a lowered threshold would affect the industry.

“This legislation has only been enacted for two years and the only indication we have of its implementation is during the pandemic,” he said. “There has been no time at all to study the impacts of the 60-hour threshold. Until we have that time and analysis under our belt, it seems extremely premature to say we need to lower the threshold. We need to stay at 60 until we can figure this out.”

For McCabe, a potential loss of farms could have severe repercussions in the community.

“I hope that the Wage Board takes into account the ripple effect losing farms will create in rural communities. (It’s) where so many businesses exist to support these farms,” he said. “Lowering the overtime threshold will cause us to lose not only farms, but the ancillary businesses and services these farms rely on. Farms don't buy supplies on Amazon. They buy their supplies and equipment locally.”

McCabe noted he hopes the wage board  ultimately makes a decision based on extensive data analysis.

“My fear is that given the composition of the board, the fix may be in and the wage board may issue a finding that will not only cripple rural economies, but also jeopardize our food security in this state,” he added.

The virtual hearings will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 4 (3:30 p.m.), Tuesday, Jan. 18 (5 p.m.); and Thursday, Jan. 20 (5 p.m.). Those interested in attending the virtual hearings can register here.