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Farmers tell state legislators they’re wary of overtime requirement

Local farmers say a recent state law creating a farm labor wage board is hurting farmers and farmworkers, who want to work additional hours.

The wage board, which was created as part of the 2019 Farm Fair Labor Act, states that farmworkers who work more than 60 hours must be paid overtime, or time and a half.

Outgoing State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), who is not seeking reelection, Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), who is running to fill Mr. LaValle’s senate seat, and State Senator Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda), the new Republican minority leader in the state Senate, took a tour with local farmers Monday to hear their concerns.

The Farm Fair Labor Practices Act was signed into law in July 2019 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The law “protects farm worker rights and ensures equitable housing and working conditions by granting collective bargaining rights, overtime pay, disability and paid family leave coverage and unemployment benefits,” according to the governor, who called it “a milestone in the crusade for social justice.”

But local farm and vineyard owners said that they have already been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited restaurants and farm stands for several months, combined with plans to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Now they fear having to pay overtime to their employees could severely impact their businesses.

The new law requires farm workers to be paid time and a half beyond 60 hours, but the farm labor wage board could decide to lower that threshold to less than 60 hours. That board can only lower the threshold, it cannot increase it, critics say.

The wage board is currently holding hearings on possibly lowering the threshold, and a new hearing is planned for Wednesday, Sept. 30.

“Even successful farming operations are dealing with a lot of challenges, and I think it’s important that we hear from them,” Mr. Ortt said. “Maybe that will help to influence policy instead of the other way around.”

Mr. Palumbo said the farm labor bill was carried in the state senate by a representative of Queens.

“That’s not exactly bringing the stakeholders to the table,” he said.

According to the state Department of Labor, the average annual wage for a farm worker on Long Island is $41,574. Suffolk County is the fourth largest agricultural county in the state, with over $225 million in annual sales from 560 farms, according to a profile of agriculture produced by the state comptroller’s office.

Mr. Palumbo said the wage board was not part of the agreed-upon bill and was thrown into the bill at the last moment, which is why the New York Farm Bureau opposed it.

“To me, this was the legislature punting because they didn’t want to make the hard decision on the hours, so they punted it to an unelected board to make this decision,” Mr. Ortt said. “It’s there to do the job the legislature should be doing itself … At some point it’s probably going to lower that threshold, and that’s going to be disastrous.”

Bill Zalakar, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau and general manager of Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in Center Moriches, said his employees are “adamantly against the changes” to the overtime law. “They want to work the hours, we are not forcing them.”

“It’s definitely impacting us,” said Phil Schmitt, whose farm stand on Sound Avenue hosted the tour. “We try to keep it under the 60 hours, but during the summer months, we did have to go over it.”

Rob Carpenter, the administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said that if farms go out of business, that land will probably be developed with houses. If it goes out of business and the farmland rights are preserved, it could just grow fallow or go into more highly mechanized crops that require fewer employees.

“The best farmland preservation is profitability,” Mr. Carpenter said.

“We are doing right by our workers,” said Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards, the president of Long Island Wine Country. “The insinuation is that we are taking advantage of our workers.” 

He said they work extra hours by choice and they come back season after season to work.

Still, at hearings before the wage board, same speakers accused farmers of taking advantage of workers.

“The argument is that agricultural businesses will simply fail as a result of increased labor costs,” said Emma Kreyche, the director of advocacy, outreach and education for the Farmworker Justice Center of New York, at the August hearing. “Here’s the thing. The system is already failing, it’s just failing people who we as a society decided don’t particularly matter.”

She urged the wage board to require overtime be paid to farm workers after 40 hours per week.

“The signing of this bill sets right 80 years of wrongs done by a racist, Jim Crow-era law that denied farmworkers basic rights,” said New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman at the bill signing.