GHENT—State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon has accepted the recommendations of the Farm Laborers Wage Board regarding a lower overtime threshold. As a result, farm workers in New York State hope to receive overtime after 40 hours of work per week, down from 60 hours. The new rules will be phased in over the next 10 years if approved by the governor.
In a decision released September 30, Commissioner Reardon accepted all three recommendations that were before the Wage Board, including the reduced overtime threshold (OT) dropping from the current 60 hours to 40 hours as it is phased in over 10 years with reductions of four hours on a biannual basis and a start date for the phase in of January 1, 2024.”
Commissioner Reardon acted three weeks before an October 21 deadline. Farmworkers, a mostly minority workforce numbering approximately 1,500 in Columbia County, have been the only occupation in New York exempt from the 40-hour threshold.
Columbia County lawmakers in Albany split on their support for the Labor Board recommendations. State Senator Michelle Hinchey (D-46), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, issued a statement to The Columbia Paper in support of the changes that emphasized state assistance to farm owners in the form of a tax credit. The senator said the legislature “created a new Farm Employer Overtime Credit, which will cover 118% of the total cost of overtime worked…. For those in need of support with upfront costs . . . there will also be an advance payment available through Ag & Markets,” Sen. Hinchey said in the statement. Ag & Markets in the state agency responsible agricultural policy and support.
Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106), who serves on the Assembly’s Agriculture Committee, in a statement to The Columbia Paper, argued that the Farm Laborers Wage Board’s recommendation is not sufficiently supported by data.
“I am concerned that continuing down this current path of lowering the overtime threshold, without hard data about its impact on our local farms . . . will lead to many farm families making the tough decision to close down, which benefits no one,” the statement reads.
Both lawmakers forecast the growing importance of New York agriculture as the “nation’s breadbasket” due to climate change.
A coalition of farmworker advocacy groups had urged Commissioner Reardon to act as soon as possible. Dr. Ed Zuroweste, founding medical director of the Migrant Clinicians Network in Clinton, and an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, views the lower overtime threshold as a health issue. He was a farmworker as a young man picking strawberries and harvesting tobacco. He described the work as “exhausting.”
The doctor added that “debilitating muscular skeletal and repetitive stress injuries” are common ailments for farm workers. He also said that farm labor is “twice as deadly as law enforcement and five times more deadly than fire fighting.”
Last year the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) successfully organized the first union of farmworkers in New York at Pindar Vineyards in Suffolk County. Joseph Dorismond, recorder and national organizer for the RWDSU dismissed farm owners’ claims. “We hear these arguments everyday, everyday. In one breath they say ‘business can’t afford it’ and in the next breath say, ‘workers make more at 60 hours regular pay than with overtime.’”
David Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative, sees a 40-hour threshold as a benefit to the farm sector in the long run. “When employers have to pay overtime they make investments to improve productivity. They invest in equipment that makes work faster and easier for workers.” He cited examples such as lifts for apple pickers and conveyor belts that “reduce the amount of lifting and carrying.”
Other benefits cited by Mr. Kallick include reduced costs for recruitment and training resulting in less turnover, “which will make New York more competitive” with surrounding states.
The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS) shows that over a 40-year period (1950-1990) the number of self-employed and family farmworkers declined by 74% and hired farmworkers declined by 51% mostly due to mechanization. NASS data also shows that farmworkers’ employment has stabilized since 1990 and that “Over the past 30 years, wages for hired farmworkers have gradually risen.”
Farm Bureau Vice-President Eric Ooms, a Kinderhook dairy farmer, in a May interview, estimated that vegetable and fruit growers along with dairy farmers would be most impacted by a lower overtime threshold as labor costs for those operations range from 20 – 60%.
Because overtime hours are not tracked, a dollar amount on its costs is not possible to calculate; however the office of Assemblymember Donna Lupardo (D-123), who chairs the Agriculture Committee, speculates on $240 million over four years.
The issue of a lower OT threshold goes before Governor Kathy Hochul (D). There will be another 60-day public comment period.