A do-or-die moment for our small farms

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By Assemblyman Chris Tague

For Capital Region Independent Media

 

For many farmers in New York state, the winter months are a time to unwind from the stresses of a challenging and demanding growing season. This year, however, our farmers remain with a great deal of apprehension as we await a decision that could threaten their future viability.

In the coming days, the Farm Laborers Wage Board will reconvene to consider reducing the overtime threshold for farmworkers in New York state to below 60 hours. Such a change would have drastic impacts on farm labor costs. A recent report estimates, when combined with scheduled minimum wage increases, a 42% increase in workforce expenses for these small businesses.

While there are attempts to portray the issue of overtime pay for farmworkers as a simple matter of wage equality, a lower overtime threshold, without considering the realities of farming, will translate into smaller paychecks for laborers, or even jobs lost. In the end, hurting the very workers the policy is intended to help.

The operation of a farm is unpredictable and relies upon crop-, animal- and weather-dependent work schedules that are oftentimes incompatible with an 8-hour workday. Farmworkers are used to laboring long hours, well over 40 hours per week, and have grown accustomed to the resulting pay. However, in the two years since the implementation of a 60-hour workweek, many of these workers have had their hours drastically reduced by their employers who cannot afford to pay overtime rates. This has resulted in farmworkers earning less, with some ultimately deciding to leave the industry. Migrant workers, relied upon by farms that struggle to find local help, have declined to return to New York state, opting instead to work where they can earn more. This exodus of labor will no doubt be more profound with further overtime reductions.

In New York, the agricultural industry is overwhelmingly composed of small, family-owned operations that are lucky to turn a profit and cannot absorb higher labor costs, nor maintain production with reduced staff. These modest farms compete in a global economy and have little to no control over the value of their goods, regardless of the actual cost to make. New York farms, already dealing with comparatively high production costs that are not accounted for in worldwide markets, find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

For example, despite the strong presence of local agriculture here, many of our schools import milk, and some procure apples from as far away as Washington state, even though New York is recognized as the second-largest apple producing state in the country.

While the consequences of further reductions to the overtime threshold will be disastrous for farmers, the impacts will ultimately be felt in the wallets of all New Yorkers. We continue to endure a prolonged food supply chain crisis that has left store shelves empty and led to dramatic increases in grocery bills. As farmers are forced to produce less labor-intensive crops or, worse yet, cease their operations, we not only lose out on fresh, locally grown foods, but we become heavily reliant on imported goods, making us more vulnerable to market volatility.

Farming is an industry unlike any other in our modern economy and by implementing a policy that fails to recognize the unique challenges faced by those who feed us, we jeopardize the future of agriculture in New York state. Our farmworkers do an essential job, and I appreciate those who are advocating for their rights. However, the imposition of a burdensome overtime threshold will end this way of life as we know it and diminish all opportunity for farmworkers in New York.

I am calling on Gov. Hochul, Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon and members of the Farm Laborers Wage Board to do the right thing and oppose any measures to further reduce the overtime threshold below its current 60 hours per week. I would also encourage others to reach out to them and make their voices heard. If we have no farms, we have no food. So let’s stop biting the hand that feeds us.

 

Assemblyman Chris Tague represents the 102nd Assembly District, which includes Greene and Schoharie counties, and parts of Albany, Columbia, Otsego, Delaware and Ulster counties.

 

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