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Split verdict on farm workers bill

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    Cows at A. Ooms and Sons Dairy Farm.
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    Legislation passed Wednesday will expand rights and benefits for farm workers around New York state.
June 21, 2019 10:08 pm

ALBANY — State lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday granting expanded benefits and rights to farm workers around the state.

Known as the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, the bill gives farm laborers collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits. The bill also addresses working conditions and includes a measure to require overtime pay for farm workers,

Prior to the bill’s passage, farm laborers had been excluded from labor protections provided under the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

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

But farm advocates say the bill will present challenges.

“We were disappointed in the final bill because we had been working with legislators on a compromise,” said Steve Ammermann, manager of public affairs at the New York Farm Bureau. “While the bill would have been difficult for farmers as it stood on Saturday, on Sunday language was added that would ultimately make it unworkable for farmers and we had to oppose it.”

One of the biggest concerns is the provision that workers are granted automatic overtime pay if they work seven consecutive days, even if they have not reached the overtime threshold of 60 hours for the week.

“The bill will force farms and farmers to push 60 hours of work into six days instead of seven. It could mean more work over the course of six days,” Ammerman said. “More importantly, it dismisses how weather can limit how many hours of work can be done in a day.”

Another concern with the legislation is the provision that changes the definition of “family” for farm workers.

“A lot of farms have extended family members working on them, like aunts and uncles, and this legislation would now make their participation on the farm part of the statute,” Ammermann said. “Family members would now be covered under this law, and we feel that is not a reasonable element of this bill.”

Eric Ooms, co-owner of A. Ooms & Sons Farm in Kinderhook, also expressed concern with elements of the legislation, such as the wage board, which was cut from four members to three, eliminating the commissioner of agriculture.

“This means overtime won’t remain at 60 hours for very long,” Ooms said. “They will lower the hours, which just means agriculture will have to evolve. We do that anyway, but part of what we have been able to offer workers over the years is as many hours as they wanted to work, within reason, but now farmers will only allow them to work up to the overtime limit, just like any other business.”

Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-107, opposed the bill, saying it would be harmful to local farms.

“Our family farmers are the backbone of our upstate community and support one of the largest industries in our state,” Ashby said. “The majority of Democrats have entirely ignored that 98 percent of farms in our state are family-owned and operated, not the industrial farms which they like to scare the public with. Small agricultural businesses will suffer because of misguided legislation from downstate politicians.”

But supporters of the bill say it provides farm workers with basic protections long afforded to other workers, such as unemployment benefits, collective bargaining rights and worker’s compensation.

Andrianna Natsoulas, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, said there were compromises and the state reached out for input from both farmers and farm workers.

“One of our biggest concerns was overtime pay. The original overtime pay would have kicked in once 40 hours was hit. The compromise is at 60 hours per week. That is a compromise,” Natsoulas said.

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, said the legislation could drive some farms out of business.

“I severely doubt the sponsors of this bill understand the impact it’s going to have,” Tague said. “Those who support this bill obviously have no sense of what it takes to be a farmer nor care what this bill would do to the thousands of families who have operated farms upstate for generations.”

State Sen. George Amedore voted against the bill.

“This legislation is an attack on the number one industry in New York state,” Amedore said. “It’s bad policy that will devastate our farms.”

Farming has had some tough times in recent years, Ammermann said. Between 2012 and 2017, New York state lost roughly 2,100 farms, or about 6% of farms in the state.

“Times are tough for farmers and this will undoubtedly make it tougher,” Ammermann said.