Farmworkers’ Wages Commission meets after one year, opinion on distribution of overtime

ALBANY — The fate of how many hours a farm worker can work before qualifying for overtime took a step forward this week at the first of three public hearings on the issue.

The three-member Farmworkers’ Wage Commission is leading the hearings this month as it helps decide whether the state’s recently implemented 60-hour overtime threshold should be lowered to the workweek of 40 hours which has applied to the rest of the workforce for approximately 80 years. Two other hearings are scheduled for January 18 and 20.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Brenda McDuffie, chair of the board and president of the Buffalo Urban League, also pointed to an issue that needs to be addressed: what qualifies as a small farm?

It was McDuffie’s only question for about three hours of public comment. The other two members of the state-appointed council represent special interests, David Fisher, president of the New York Farm Bureau, and Denis Hughes, former president of the New York State AFL-CIO.

McDuffie’s question came after the son of a Lewis County dairy farmer, who opposes lowering the overtime threshold, admitted that if it were to be changed, small farms would have to be exempt . The farmer’s son, Zachary Makuch, who is also a secondary school teacher, said he would consider a dairy farm with around 500 to 900 cows to be small, especially if it is family owned.

There are 625,000 dairy cows among New York’s 3,600 dairy farms, according to state data. New York dairy farms brought in $2.7 billion in gross income in 2020.

According to the most recent federal data from 2017, more than 96% of dairy farms in New York had herds of less than 1,000 cows, but more than half of the state’s cows are on the top 4% of farms in more than 1,000 cows. .

The state is a leading producer of many dairy products in the country and remained so throughout the initial implementation of a 60 overtime threshold, although small farms have threatened to close if the threshold was lowered to 40 hours of work. week.

McDuffie asked Makuch to submit “any additional information on your dollar definition, as we have a wide variety of farms to consider.”

Other farmers have proposed that if the board lowers the threshold, it should follow California’s plan and slowly introduce an additional 40-hour threshold. McDuffie briefly referenced the California model during his closing remarks. The council could recommend the gradual introduction of a threshold of 40 hours per farm size and per year.

Most of the farm owners who testified asked that the overtime threshold not be lowered. Republican lawmakers, including top farm committee leaders, have spoken out in support of these farmers. A few advocates and academics have come out in favor of lowering the threshold to 40 hours per work week for agricultural workers.

Two farm owners, young and new to the industry, argued at the hearing to lower the threshold. One of the women farmers said that she was already operating her farm under the 40-hour working week and it was not a problem for her.

The voice most absent from the audience was that of the farm workers—the subject of the audience.

A handful of those workers, most of whom spoke Spanish, commented on the overtime threshold. Most spoke out in favor of lowering the threshold, discussing fairness and their own health. Others offered views against the threshold, while some appeared alongside their farm owners.

In the first year of the state’s 60-hour overtime threshold for farm workers, farms saw modest revenue growth and the number of people employed by farms held steady, according to statistics compiled by the State Department of Labor and presented at the beginning of the hearing.

Without government money to subsidize farms during the coronavirus pandemic, farms would have seen their income decline.

State data did not show as gloomy a result regarding the 60-hour overtime threshold as a Farm Credit East agriculture industry report predicted. A Cornell University report, which relied on some Farm Credit data, showed that workers would receive more money under the new threshold and that farms would experience modest declines in overall income.

The Farm Credit East and Cornell University reports have been touted by the agriculture industry and Republican lawmakers.

The Cornell University report was widely quoted by farmers and lawmakers during the public hearing, particularly what the report said about the thoughts of seasonal H-2A workers.

Cornell rejected the Times Union’s request for a copy of a blank survey that was provided to workers. The lead researcher of the state-funded report told the newspaper that he was unsure whether international workers were told what the minimum wage was going to increase in the state and what the minimum wage is in other states.

Farmers, including leaders in their respective sectors, have warned that the 40-hour threshold will not only hurt their bottom lines and threaten the vitality of their businesses, but it could also lead to difficulties in providing food for farmers. pantry and shelters. Fisher of the Farm Bureau sought a farmer to further emphasize this point. That was Fisher’s only comment during the hearing.

Completely absent from the first hearing, Democratic lawmakers pushed for legislation to create the wages commission and lower the overtime threshold.

Republican Assemblymen Steve Hawley and Chris Tague, and state Senator Geogre Borrello, spoke in favor of keeping the overtime threshold.

Their arguments echoed sentiments expressed by Republican congressmen in New York more than 80 years ago when they argued against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which would then establish a federal minimum wage. and a 40-hour work week.

“May I say the cow cannot be regulated by any law you could pass here,” Republican U.S. Representative Francis D. Culkin of Oswego told Congress in 1937. “She gives her milk at 6 a.m. You can pass laws until hell freezes over and you can’t change that….So I say, for God’s sake…don’t try to invade the province of cow given by God by this legislation.

New Deal-era legislation eliminated agricultural workers and housekeepers, following pressure from Southern Democrats, who represented those industries, which were often filled by black workers.

The New York Department of Agriculture and Markets recently acknowledged in a report that farmers of color have “experienced both explicit and implicit forms of discrimination and racism” and has sought to remedy the situation, by especially for those who own farms.

Michael A. Bynum