'Grave concerns' about farm labor act: local farmers pan bill

Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, R-Lyons, pictured above, speaks o the floor of the New York State Assembly. Manktelow, a farmer himself, was among the most outspoken opponents of the "Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act," passed by the state Legislature Wednesday. 

ALBANY — Labor relations on New York’s farms are about to receive a complete regulatory makeover starting the first of next year, now that state lawmakers have cemented legal protections for farm workers consistent with most of the American labor force. 

Farm workers in New York will now be given overtime pay after working 60 hours in a week, along with a slate of other labor protections traditionally withheld from their sector of the American workforce, now guaranteed by the controversial Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. The act gives farm workers a slate of protections enjoyed by workers designated as “employees” by the National Labor Relations Act since the New Deal.

The bill sailed through both legislative chambers Wednesday, where it was vetted across party lines. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would sign the bill into law. It is slated to take effect Jan. 1, 2020.

Under New York state employee regulations, farm workers will have collective bargaining rights, one mandated weekly day of rest, eight-hour work day limits and be eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation. 

 “With the passage of this legislation, we will help ensure every farm worker receives the overtime pay and fair working conditions they deserve,” Cuomo said in a statement late Wednesday night. “The constitutional principles of equality, fairness and due process should apply to all of us.”

Local farmers say the bill will hurt New York’s farms, especially small and family farms, by placing restrictions of step with the realities of the agriculture industry.

County Legislator Morris Sorbello, who owns and operates Sorbello and Sons Farms in Fulton, told The Palladium-Times 60-hour work week limitations might force his farm to cut hours from workers who would otherwise consent to work above the overtime threshold.

The act includes a phase-in period for next year, after which the 60-hour overtime threshold will change to 40 hours — a “nice break” for farms, Sorbello said, but ultimately working hours are unpredictable and subject to a limited growing season in the area.

“With the weather conditions, it’s hard to tell if the hours are going to be 40 hours or 60 hours or more,” Sorbello said.

Compromises to the act came less than a week after farmers and farm laborers gathered in Albany to vocalize their concerns to lawmakers that the new regulations impose unrealistic standards. The local chapter of the New York State Farm Bureau represented Oswego County farms.

“We’ve come together to discuss with our legislators just how difficult it is to plan crop schedules around the rain and how the markets dictate what we receive for what we produce,” New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher said in a news release. “I know we can find common ground on the proposed legislation regarding farm labor that benefits our farm workers, farms and consumers, and we look forward to continue working with our elected officials to make that happen.”

Formerly providing farm workers the right to strike, the revised version of the bill contains a no-strike clause to prevent worker shortages during critical growing periods. However, the bill standardizes the terms of employee-employer negotiations, after a state appellate court last month ruled that a state law denying farm laborers from collective bargaining was unconstitutional.

In a Thursday interview with The Palladium-Times, Oswego County Legislator Terry Wilbur, R-Hannibal, said, whether overtime kicks in at 40 or 60 weekly hours, farmers will ration their quantity of acres for harvest and cut working hours if they can’t support the state-mandated one-and-one-half overtime rate.

“In terms of dollars and cents, it’s going to hurt agriculture, hurt consumers and make farmers questions how many acres they’re going to plant because they have to decide if they’re going to pay overtime,” Wilbur said. “There’s a limited window of time to perform many of the agricultural duties that are needed for many of our local crops.” 

Wilbur said the bill manifests the “upstate versus downstate” divide among state lawmakers representing communities who provide agricultural products and those who don’t, currently represented by Democrats in the majority party.

County Legislators passed a resolution at their monthly legislative meeting June 13, urging state lawmakers representing Oswego County to vote against the bill, citing a Farm Credit East report that said the bill would increase labor costs by nearly $300 million and reduce net farm income 23.4 percent.  

All but one, Tom Drumm, D-Oswego, opposed the measure, citing his unequivocal support for workers’ right to unionize.

“I’m going to be hard pressed to vote against their right to collectively bargain,” Drumm said in a Palladium-Times interview Thursday. “I’m a huge union supporter and I believe unions make workplaces stronger, both for employers and workers.”

Drumm called the revised bill imperfect but “a good step moving forward.” The no-strike provision addresses concerns from farmers about having enough labor power during a limited and often unpredictable growing season.

“If you have strike during peak season, it is going to run them out of business,” he said. 

Oswego County’s Republican state lawmakers — Assemblymen Will Barclay and Brian Manktelow and state Sen. Patty Ritchie — made good on the county’s charge by voting against the bill Wednesday, even in its revised form.

“The fact that we’ve lost over 2,000 farms in the last five years and the fact that every farmer that I’ve talked to whether they’re big medium or small they’re teetering on the brink of disaster — for that reason, I vote no,” Ritchie said on the state Senate floor Wednesday. 

Barclay, R-Pulaski, said the act fails to account for the damage caused to upstate farms, potentially driving them out of business or out of the state.

“In upstate New York, farms are central to our local economies,” Barclay said in a recent statement to reporters. “This bill will drastically change a system that was put in place to benefit farmers and their workforce. Forcing these regulations will lead to inflated payroll costs and result in less hours and more job cuts.”

Manktelow, R-Lyons, has farmed his family’s land in Wayne County his entire life and said he had “grave concerns” about the bill.

“It’ll really hurt the agricultural business and the people we employ,” he said. “My concern is they’re trying to fit something that works for different organizations into farmers and farm laborers and we do is so unique and different.”

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