NYS Farm Labor Bill Extends New Rights and Protections to Farmworkers

Jun 21, 2019

Credit usda.gov

Neither farmworkers, nor their employers are claiming victory after passage of legislation at the state capitol that includes some labor protections that most other workers enjoy. 


The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act doesn’t give either side everything they wanted.  Public Affairs Manager at the New York Farm Bureau Steve Ammerman says they’re OK with the 60 hour-a-week threshold before overtime, and a mandatory day of rest.  But a last minute change makes it much more difficult for farmers…

Should a farmworker decide that they wanted to work it, that seventh day would be an automatic overtime.  We thought that would be too difficult.  It goes around the 60 hour threshold that was agreed upon.”

Rebecca Fuentes is lead organizer with the Workers' Center of Central New York.  She says 60 hours a week before overtime is a lot for any job, let alone the difficult work of farmworkers in the fields or dairies. 

“Originally, this proposal was fighting for the 40 hour threshold, after which you’d have to pay overtime.  What got passed was 60 hours.  We understand 60 hours is a compromise.”

Fuentes says workers will also have the right to organize and bargain with employers, but that was in exchange for no strikes, work slowdowns, or stoppages.  She says while the legislation is not ideal, it is progress.

Former dairy worker Crispin Hernandez, right, was a plaintiff in a case in which an appellate court last month found unconstitutional the exclusion of farmworkers from a state law that protects workers' right to organize. Fuentes says that ruling helped bolster the legislation approved by lawmakers. The ruling is being appealed by the New York Farm Bureau. At left is interpreter Fabiola Ortiz-Valdez, an organizer with the NY Immigration Coalition.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

We know that we got there because we’ve been working on this for 20 years.  We’ve shown that workers have a voice, and they can, law or now law, collectively have freedom of association and can organize.”

Meanwhile, Ammerman with the Farm Bureau says it’s difficult to find a happy medium.  

You’re trying to balance what many see as social justice versus economic realities, and trying to find ways to meld them together so everyone can come out on the other side with something that’s workable.  That’s what we were all trying to do with a compromise legislation on this bill.”

Ammerman says farms believe in taking care of their employees, but higher labor costs will only add to other challenges like the weather, pests, and market forces beyond their control. 

ADDITIONAL COVERAGE

This story was produced by Capitol Correspondent Karen DeWitt.

The New York State legislature approved new protections for farmworkers that supporters say are long overdue.  

The measures give farmworkers the right to receive overtime pay of one and a half times their regular wages after they have worked more than 60 hours in a week. They also now have the right to one full day of rest per week, will be eligible for unemployment insurance and workers compensation coverage. And they will be granted the right to organize to join a union and to collectively bargain.

Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, a Republican from  Western New York, comes from a long line of farmers. He predicts the new requirements will be too onerous and that farms will close and farmers will leave the state

“And they will be gone, another industry out of the state of New York,"   Hawley said.  “It will be in the nail in the coffin that puts my grandfather to rolling in his grave.”

A coalition of farm groups , including the New York Farm Bureau, New York State Vegetable Growers Association and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, oppose the measure, saying it will reduce farmworker hours and wages because farmers cannot afford to pay overtime, and could even lead to a “dissatisfied and unstable” workforce that could compromise the welfare of farm animals and crops..

Bill sponsor Cathy Nolan, a Democrat from Queens, says other states, including California,  have enacted wage and work hour protections for farmworkers and have permitted them to collectively bargain for many years. And she says that has not deterred that state from being the leader in the agricultural industry. She says, In New York  it might even lead to increased sales of farm products.

I think many of us will feel better about that, knowing that the hand that picked that apple was given a fair shot of being in a union and having collective bargaining rights,” said Nolan. “As all other workers do.”

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who was born in Colombia, and immigrated to the US, says many of the farmworkers are African –American or Lantinx. She says when she worked as an advocate for farmworkers, she saw many who lived in substandard housing and were overworked treated as “second class citizens” and “less than human."  She says the state is finally righting a wrong that occurred in the 1930’s when farmworkers were left out of the federal fair labor act.

And put an end to the last vestiges of the Jim Crow era,” Cruz said.

The Justice for Farmworkers Coalition, which lobbied for years for the bill, said in a statement that “justice will finally be served.” 

Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will sign the measure.