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Farm Bureau asks Hochul for reversal of 40-hour workweek decision

Members of the New York State Farm Bureau, reacting to a state labor board decision to phase in a 40-hour workweek for farm laborers, warn that could severely diminish the state’s agricultural industry, which is largely made up of small, family-owned farms.

Late on Friday, the Farm Laborers Wage Board announced that a 40-hour workweek will be required for farmworkers beginning in 2032. When workers reach that limit, they will be eligible for overtime pay. The requirement will be phased in over the next 10 years.

David Fisher, president of the New York Farm Bureau and a dairy farmer in St. Lawrence County, is on the three-person wage board and was the only member to vote against the plan.

“To drop the threshold to 40 hours over the next decade will be extremely difficult for farmers and farmworkers alike to absorb,” Fisher said. “And will change the face of New York agriculture.”

Fisher said farm owners, who recently adapted to a 60-hour workweek, down from 80 hours, can’t afford to pay the amount of overtime that a 40-hour limit would require. He and other farmers predict that many will grow and harvest fewer fruits and vegetables and produce less milk. He said it might cause some to leave farming altogether.

Supporters, including labor unions, pushed for the change, saying farm laborers are the only category of workers who have not fallen under the state’s labor laws that require overtime pay after 40 hours of work per week.

Fisher said he’s also concerned that the full board did not review all of the testimony collected during public hearings held on the proposal. He said at least a dozen videos from opponents were not viewed at all. He said 70% of the testimony came from opponents, who said the measure would also hurt farmworkers.

“It will mean fewer hours and less income, and force those wanting to find more work to find a second job or leave New York state,” Fisher said. “We can’t afford to lose our skilled workforce.”

The Farm Bureau is asking Gov. Kathy Hochul to “rethink” the wage board decision, and override the vote.

Jeff Williams, public policy director for the bureau, said they will “make every effort” to convince Hochul to modify or reverse the decision.

“This decision is firmly placed at the feet of Gov. Hochul,” Williams said. “It’s up to this governor to decide whether she wants a meaningful agricultural industry in this state. And if she doesn’t change her mind, it’s not going to be meaningful.”

Hochul, in her state budget plan, has proposed a tax credit to help offset the overtime pay required under the change. Fisher said it “looks good on paper,” but he will need to see details of whether it’s a good solution.

Williams said farmers are concerned that if they would have to pay the workers the overtime first and then wait until the tax returns are processed the following year to apply the tax credit, that could create cash flow problems.

“If we could think of some way to make that an easier process, a quicker process, that’s something definitely worthy of exploring,” Williams said.

Unless Hochul acts to change it, the phase-in to a 40-hour workweek for farm laborers begins in January 2024, with the institution of a 56-hour workweek.

A spokesman for Hochul, Jim Urso, said in a statement that “Governor Hochul is committed to making New York the most business-friendly and worker-friendly state in the nation and has proposed major investments in her Executive Budget to boost the state’s agricultural industry— including a significant tax credit package that would support both farmers and farmworkers."

He also said they "are confident" that New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon will review the board’s recommendations closely "and ensure that the final decision puts the state on a path to improve the lives of farmworkers while protecting New York’s vital farm industry.”

Copyright 2022 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.