Farmworker’s Wage Commission decides to lower extension threshold to 40 hours

ALBANY — The Farm Laborer Wage Board agreed Friday to pave the way for a 40-hour workweek for New York City farmworkers, a landmark move that was swiftly criticized by the agriculture industry and the Republican Party.

The decision, 2 to 1 from the panel, would lower the current threshold of 60 overtime hours for farmworkers over a 10-year period, which would reach 40 hours by 2032. The council agreed to lower the threshold to four hours. per week every two years from 2024.

“We did something very historic today,” Buffalo Urban League president Brenda McDuffie said Friday night during the board’s fourth public hearing.

The council’s decision will be sent to State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, who has the final say and may change the recommendations.

A proposed overtime tax credit for farm owners by Governor Kathy Hochul in her budget did not play into the council’s deliberations. Advocates on both sides of the issue could not explain the complicated tax credit on offer; the State Budget Division declined to explain the credit.

The vote came quickly and seemed to surprise David Fisher, board member, president of the New York Farm Bureau. He’s tracked nearly 12 hours of meetings this month, most of those public comments.

The majority of comments were in favor of not lowering the threshold and came mostly from farm owners, who said the change could cause the collapse not just of their family business, but of the industry as a whole.

The farm owners’ comments, encouraged by the State Farm Bureau and a coalition supporting the bureau, were starkly different from what civil and labor rights experts, advocates and activists were proposing. Labor advocates have argued that agricultural workers should be entitled to a 40-hour workweek like the rest of the workforce.

In 1938, Congress approved the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a federal minimum wage and the modern 40-hour work week. President Franklin D. Roosevelt brokered a deal with Southern Democrats to see passage of his New Deal-era legislation removing farm workers and domestic workers from those thresholds. It was not until the 1980s that agricultural workers began to be entitled to a minimum wage.

Some farm owners had argued that visa workers, who make up a relatively small percentage of the overall workforce, wanted to work as many hours as possible and would leave the state if they could earn more. money elsewhere. A Cornell University study, which found similar results, relied on convenience samples and small data collection; the university declined to release its data or surveys.

Labor rights groups have argued that it is essential that agricultural workers have the right to have the same free time as the rest of the workforce. He also noted that if hours were reduced to 40 per week before overtime started, it could mean farms would be more competitive in attracting employees locally.

“This issue will not be ignored by either side and everyone needs time to adjust to it,” said State AFL-CIO board member and former president Denis Hughes. New York. “I think the smart thing to do for us as a board is to give a lot of leeway, a lot of time to figure out what changes can and should be made.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which had fought to lower the overtime threshold, urged the Labor Department commissioner to accept the terms set by the board.

“New York’s agriculture industry must no longer depend on the continued exploitation of farmworkers,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. New York State.”

The decision comes after lawmakers passed a “Fair Labor Practices for Farmworkers Act” in 2019. It created a 60-hour overtime threshold and the right to a day off. A concurrent trial also granted agricultural workers the right to organize.

“Today will be remembered as the day family farming slowly died in our state — and it was radical, out-of-touch Senate Democrats who killed it,” said the Senate Minority Leader, Rob Ortt, in a statement.

Grow NY Farms, a coalition representing the interests of the State Farm Bureau, also decried the decision.

“The continued collapse of New York agriculture is in the hands of those who spread lies and seek to destroy the livelihoods of the farmworkers they say they represent,” the coalition said in a statement.

Michael A. Bynum