OC Farm Bureau president says lowering OT would deter workers, change local landscape

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 24 February 2022 at 10:27 am

Farmers would likely to turn away from labor-intensive apples, cabbage and squash for grain and processing crops

Photo by Tom Rivers: Orleans County Farm Bureau President John Kast speaks at Wednesday’s County Legislature meeting when he asked the county officials to oppose lowering the overtime threshold in agriculture from the current 60 hours. Kast said the change would hurt seasonal workers who would see smaller paychecks with reduced hours and fewer jobs as farms would likely shift to more mechanization.

ALBION – Orleans County farmers each year welcome about 1,500 seasonal workers to bring in labor-intensive crops, from apples, cabbage, squash and cherries. Many workers are also needed each spring to plant onions on the muck in Barre and Clarendon.

Those workers are critical to Orleans County’s biggest business of agriculture, which totaled $155.3 million in 2017 federal ag census. That put Orleans as 14th among the state’s 62 counties.

But John Kast, president of Orleans County Farm Bureau, said the agriculture sector faces a big threat to its long-term viability with a strong push to lower the overtime threshold from 60 hours a week to 40.

“The decision to lower the overtime threshold will dramatically increase a farm’s operating cost with no way to adjust to recoup those costs,” Kast told the Orleans County Legislature on Wednesday. “Farms do not have the ability to set prices on our commodities. We are at the mercy of our buyers and futures markets. Unlike many other businesses that can raise prices or make other adjustments like adding self-checkout systems or kiosks for ordering, we must absorb the extra cost which is unsustainable.”

A three-person Farm Labor Wage Board voted on Jan. 28 to gradually reduce the overtime threshold in agriculture from 60 hours a week to 40 hours. The reduction in the OT threshold would be phased in from Jan. 1, 2024 to Jan. 1, 2032.

The County Legislature on Wednesday passed a formal resolution, asking Gov. Hochul not to follow the Wage Board by adopting the new threshold. Farmers have many cost factors out of their control and can’t pass on the increased costs due to a commodities market where prices are set due to global demand, legislators said.

The change in NY also puts NY farmers at a competitive disadvantage where there would be a different wage structure for workers. Many of those states already have a much lower minimum wage than in New York.

The seasonal workers, however, earn more than the minimum wage, Kast said.

The workers in the federal H2S program will be paid $15.66 an hour in 2022, Kast said. And farms also cover the visa costs, all travel costs to the local community and then back to their home country. The farms also must provide transportation and housing during the workers’ time here, Kast said.

“Our housing facilities are inspected by the local health department and are maintained under strict requirements from the New York State Department of Labor and Department of Health,” Kast told legislators. “Which is more than most apartments and condos are required to do. All of which provides additional benefits to our workers and adds additional costs to our farms.”

The Wage Board adopted a reduced threshold that would begin in two years with the threshold down to 56 hours a week and then would drop 4 more hours every two years until it’s at 40 hours a week on 2032.

The change would force farmers to either try to stay under the overtime cap and get as much work done as possible, or switch to less labor-intensive crops.

“Either option means less hours, less opportunity and less money for seasonal workers,” Kast said. “There are states all around that do not have overtime rules for agriculture and many of our workers have told us that if they will earn less money here and cannot work as much as they are able to, they will go elsewhere where they can.”

Kast said the very landscape of the county would change if the OT threshold drops, with fewer apple orchards and fields of cabbage and squash.

Kast said the seasonal workers, who often come from Mexico or Jamaica, have been with the same family-run farms for many years.

“Our workers are like family to many of us,” Kast said. “Often workers have been coming up for many years and in some cases multiple generations. We want them to enjoy working for us while being able to provide a good living wage for their families.”