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Rural Democrats urge Democrat-led Legislature not to pass overtime pay for farmworkers

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 7 June 2019 at 11:57 am

Leaders of the Democratic Rural Conference of New York State on Thursday issued a resolution opposing overtime pay for farmworkers, saying it could harm an agricultural industry that is already in a “precarious situation,” according to a statement from Judith Hunter of Livingston County, who is chairwoman of the conference.

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is sponsored by State Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens. The bill has been introduced in the Legislature before but was always stopped by Republicans who had the majority of the seats. This year the Senate is in Democrat control.

Hunter said the dairy industry is in a crisis and other sectors are struggling.

“Our rural economy depends on agriculture, and we are concerned that agriculture will be able to recover from its current difficulties stronger than ever,” she said.

Agriculture in New York State represents $4.2 billion and is “an integral part of our rural heritage and culture, directly and indirectly providing valuable jobs, supporting local business and are a critical component of our state’s economy,” the Rural Democrats said in a resolution.

“Any eventual legislation should protect our farmworkers, clearly, but it should also protect our farmers,” Hunter said. “They are unable to pass on higher production costs by charging higher prices, because those prices are set by market forces beyond their control. Already, dairy farmers find themselves getting less for their milk than it costs them to produce. New York agriculture also must be supported as it works to become more competitive, more sustainable, and more resilient in the face of climate change.”

Farmers at a roundtable in Batavia last month said the legislation requiring time-and-half after 8 hours in one day and 40 hours in a week would increase their costs from 17 to 25 percent. Some of the farmers, like fruit grower Jeff Toussaint of Knowlesville, said they would have to look at a different type of farming with far less labor costs. For Toussaint that could mean removing fruit trees and planting corn and soybeans.

The Rural Democrats are proposing the overtime threshold not begin until 60 hours are worked in a week.

The farmers at the Batavia roundtable, led by State Sen. Robert Ortt, said labor costs have been on the rise with the state’s minimum wage increases and the H2A rates, which are all set by the government. When those wages go up, farmers increase the wages for middle managers, herdsmen and others who are above the minimum wage.

The Rural Democrats said the state’s minimum wage ranks among the top five in the country, with the minimum wage in upstate currently $3.85 higher than federal minimum wage.

The state legislation calls for collective bargaining for farmworkers, but the Rural Democrats say there should be a no-strike provision.

The resolution will be sent to state legislative leaders, including Gov. Cuomo.

(Editor’s Note: Jeanne Crane, the Orleans County Democratic Party chairwoman, is a member of the board of directors for the Rural Democrats.)

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