By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
FEURA BUSH — Local, state and federal Republican leaders Monday morning decried a proposal to reduce the overtime threshold they say could put family farms out of business.
A press conference at Stanton’s Feura Farm in Feura Bush featured a host of GOP leaders and political candidates, including Republican gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-1, a congressman from Suffolk County, as well as U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-21, the Republican Conference chairwoman.
Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, hosted the press conference and spoke of GOP opposition to a proposal that would change the threshold for paying overtime to farm workers from 60 hours to 40 hours.
“I cannot overstate just how serious of a threat this proposed threshold reduction really is to our farmers,” Tague said. “Agribusinesses, food security and farm workers themselves are going to be at risk.”
The proposed change will next be considered by the New York State Farm Laborers Wage Board at its meeting Sept. 6. The board is expected to make a recommendation to the state’s Department of Labor at that time.
The impact of passing the new threshold would be “disastrous” for small family farms in particular, Tague said.
“Even without the threshold reduction that looms over them and their livelihood, farmers have been put through a lot over these last few years,” the assemblyman said. “The pandemic has taken its toll on them and now we have inflation the likes of which we haven’t seen in over 40 years. The cost of necessities such as feed, fuel and fertilizer have skyrocketed and if threshold reduction is implemented, farmers are looking at having their labor costs increased by over 40%.”
A report was released by Cornell University in November 2021 that found that if the lower threshold is implemented, two-thirds of dairy farmers would move out of milk production and one-quarter of fruit and vegetable farms could be expected to relocate out of the state, Tague noted.
The move could also mean 70% of farm guest workers, who work seasonally and then return to their homes the rest of the year, would not return, opting instead to work in other states, according to the study.
Zeldin, who will face off against incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, in November, said state government is “going out of its way to break farming,” at a time when farmers are facing other challenges as well.
“These farmers are already struggling to survive in what is an extremely tough occupation — dealing with the supply chain crisis, dealing with rising costs, having to compete with other states that are actually pro-farming, with people who run agencies that actually want to make farming stronger,” Zeldin said.
The Cornell study is “shocking,” Zeldin said.
“There is a decision right now in front of this state — do they want to have the backs of farming or not?” Zeldin said. “It’s actually black and white — if you reduce this threshold from 60 hours to 40 hours, you will have businesses that will fold, you will have businesses that leave, you will have employees that are desperately needed here that will pursue opportunities elsewhere. The costs will go up and they will be passed down to all of us.”
Stefanik said the state is at “a precipice,” and called for leaders like the governor to reject the threshold reduction that would mean farmers have to pay more overtime to their workers.
“This is going to shut down our farms in New York state,” Stefanik said, adding she wants her young son to grow up in a state that is an “agricultural powerhouse.”
State Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-51, said the change could cost farm workers their jobs, and that working a regular 40-hour week is not feasible for seasonal jobs like farm work.
“Farms are not factories where working conditions are predictable,” Oberacker said. “It is unfair to force our farmers, who have to deal with severe weather and other uncontrollable factors, to follow the excessively scripted guidelines. Farming is a unique business and should be treated as such.”
Kelly Stanton Ellis, whose family has owned the Feura Bush farm since the 1700s, urged the state to stay at the 60-hour threshold.
“This is our livelihood, this is our lives,” Stanton Ellis said. “It’s a lifestyle, it’s not a job. This is just going to create more obstacles for us and make it harder for us to make a living. Bringing the threshold down to 40 hours, we won’t be able to make enough money and we will have to downsize or consider moving out of state.”
The state is expected to meet Sept. 6 to consider the proposal.