While farmers throughout the state recently got a breather when it comes to having to pay more overtime to their workers, this issue will hang over them unless authorities come to their senses.
Last year, the state Department of Labor created a Farm Wage Board to determine if the threshold for overtime should be adjusted. Initiating this board was part of a law passed in 2019 to address farmworker concerns about various working conditions.
The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act created a Farm Wage Board, consisting of one representative each from the Farm Bureau, state AFL-CIO and member of the public. Board members are authorized to hold hearings to determine if they wish to recommend a lower cap on overtime hours. It established the threshold for overtime at 60 hours, but the wage board could decide to lower it to 40 hours.
The act permits farm laborers to take one day of the week off. But if they choose to work on this day, they’ll be paid overtime — even if they haven’t exceeded the 60-hour limit. Labor shortages could compel farms to use workers on their days off, unnecessarily increasing their overtime costs.
David M. Fisher, president of the New York Farm Bureau, is a member of the Farm Wage Board. He successfully persuaded his colleagues to postpone making a decision on lowering the threshold until at least November.
This was based in part on what farms have experienced as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Board members will wait to see what happens this year. In a news release issued Dec. 31, Fisher said he agreed with board chairwoman Brenda McDuffie’s position on delaying its recommendations.
“I had encouraged giving the process more time to fully evaluate what a lower threshold would mean for all involved, especially with such limited data from this challenging year,” he said in a statement. “I’d like to thank my fellow wage board members for their time and professionalism and encourage the Department of Labor to continue to work with the farming community to do what is best for our farms and employees. We need each other for agricultural production and our rural economies to flourish.”
State Assembly Minority Leader William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski, also agreed with the Farm Wage Board’s decision to wait until more information was available.
“Fortunately, the Wage Board acted prudently in its decision to preserve the current threshold for the time being. This is welcome news for farmers across New York — at least in the short term,” he said. “Moving forward, we must keep in mind that the past year has been one of the most difficult for the agricultural industry, which was especially ravaged by the [coronavirus] pandemic. This is a time when we should be working to facilitate economic recovery and avoid putting unnecessary financial pressures onto the backs of New York’s farmers.”
It’s good that the Farm Wage Board will seek further input this year to assess the financial conditions of farms. The pandemic has hit everyone in the pocketbook. In particular, dairy farms were already dealing with a loss of revenue for the past several years.
But state legislators need to revise this law to keep the overtime threshold at 60 hours. Farmers are reeling from economic forces they can’t control, so mandating they pay even more overtime would be devastating. Let’s not further damage an industry that’s so vital to New York.