By Paul Baker, NYSHS Executive Director
For many of you, this winter will be very demanding. The stress of unprecedented low rainfall and less than exciting returns has left many of you frustrated. In my experience, I have found such years the ones that demand you to be at your very best. When the markets are at their most demanding it is time to tighten your management skills.
Labor last year was, in my observation, at its most stressed level. I do not know one single operation that reported having to turn away labor. The exact opposite was the case. If operations were not in the H2A program then each morning they were waiting for the arrival of a very uncertain workforce. Workers were in high demand and they took full advantage of the opportunity. Shortages at key times in harvest were a huge reason why many apples were picked too late. The low resulting pressures have led to low returns this winter.
Farms of all types are looking at H2A for the first time. This is happening across the nation. Washington, California, Georgia, Michigan and Florida, the largest user of this system are increasing the usage of this program. It will be interesting to see if the bottle neck in Chicago will be staffed to handle this increase. If you are intending to use this program, you need to begin today and take full advantage of the time you are allowed to complete the multiple steps. Expect delays as Chicago simply does not have the manpower to make this a quick and easy turn around.
If this were not enough for you to be concerned about you need not look any further than to your state capital in Albany, NY. Earlier in the month my board (NYSHS) was in Albany and we learned of a bill S=2721 introduced by a freshman Senator from Manhattan. Senator Alcantara has introduced the most demanding bill in my memory for reform of farm Labor in New York State. This bill has all of the previous requests for collective bargaining, days of rest and more. In the past years such bills have reached out for overtime after 10 hours per day and after 60 hours per week for farm employees. This bill is asking for overtime after 8 hours each day and 40 hours per week. Needless to say this would be the most aggressive farm labor program in US history if passed by the State.
In talking with the Governor’s office they say “do not be too worried about this.” I find such a bill quite a worry and one we need to gear up to confront. We must present reasons why such a bill would do enormous long term damage to not only the farming industry but the entire Up State economy.
I went into Senator Alcantara’s office to discuss this bill. I met with her chief of staff. I asked what was the underlying reason for her pressing his bill? The answer was that she had heard that there were many Spanish workers in Up State New York that were not being treated and paid fairly. She herself is of Spanish origin so this was her way of reaching out to protect them. I asked if she has actually ever had a discussion with any of these workers. The answer was she had not personally ever met or talked to any. This type of emotional agenda is extremely dangerous. If passed, I need not explain what it would do to your operations and employees.
I leave you with the reality that despite low returns each of you must discover how to do a better job in 2017. If labor is tight this may be the year to remove marginal orchards. You must be creative in managing and sourcing your employee recruitment. Many of you have wished to remain politically silent. I suggest that with the new Trump administration and what potentially could come out of Albany you simply must voice your concerns. To not do so is to offer power to those who do not have the most understanding of your operations.