A Column of News & Comment by Senator James L. Seward 

As we continue to navigate our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is making adjustments.  Whether it is at home, at work, or any other daily activity, we are doing things differently.  One business in particular that has been hard hit is farming.  Our farmers, who contend with a host of difficulties on a regular basis, are coping with a number of new complications.  Certainly, it is not the time to add to the list, but that is exactly what the state is considering.

Last year, during the final days of the state legislative session, the “Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act” was approved.  The bill, which I strongly opposed, included several new labor mandates.  The bill requires overtime pay for workers who work more than six days per week (regardless of hours), requires overtime pay for workers who exceed a 60-hour workweek, and mandates a day of rest in every calendar week.

Farmworkers deserve a fair wage and time off, however there are certain conditions that make farming a unique business, especially in New York.  Short growing seasons and weather conditions are considerable factors that farmers must contend with and cows do not stop producing milk on Sunday.  Long workdays are a way of life and a 40-hour workweek is rare.

At the time of the bill’s adoption, both farmers and farm workers opposed many of the provisions.  During debate on the bill the senate sponsor, a freshman senator from Queens, was asked how many farmers she represented.  Her answer, “I can count on my hand the number of rooftop apiaries that are in my district.”  The bill was not written with our upstate family farms in mind.

New York farmers face strict regulations and are subject to regular inspections by state and federal authorities.  Farmers also provide their workers with quality pay and in many cases, other benefits like housing and food.  Farming is a unique business and must be treated as such.

The new law also mandated that the state Labor Commissioner establish a farmworkers’ wage board to examine the overtime pay threshold and consider whether it should be lowered even further. The current three-member board includes New York State AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes, Buffalo Urban League President Brenda McDuffie, and New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher.

The new overtime requirements have been in place for only eight months and it is incomprehensible to me that regulations that are even more stringent are already being contemplated.  Additionally, with restaurants operating at a lower capacity and schools holding classes online thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for many products grown by our farmers has dropped substantially.

The wage board has one hearing remaining on Wednesday, September 30 at 6:00 p.m.  The hearing will be conducted virtually and anyone interested can view the proceedings.  If you are interested in testifying, that option is available as well by signing up athttps://www.ny.gov/content/flflpa-wage-board-hearings-sign.  Finally, written testimony will be accepted by the wage board through October 31 at wageboard@labor.ny.gov.

Additionally, I am co-sponsoring legislation (S.8944) which would extend the date that the wage board’s report must be submitted from December 31, 2020, to December 31, 2024.  This would allow for the collection of four years of data to provide a truer picture of the impact of the 60-hour threshold on the finances and operations of New York farms.  The measure would also require the board to consider additional factors including wage and overtime rates in neighboring states, the impact that COVID-19 has had on the agricultural industry, total compensation, including other benefits such as housing and insurance, and the supply and demand of farm employees.

Farmers have spent the past few months doing exactly what they always do – overcoming difficult circumstances to feed our communities and the nation while sustaining our state’s economy.  Now it is time for the state to exercise commonsense rather than adding new obstacles that could harm farmers and farm workers alike.