Farm Labor Wage Board Hearings

Last June the New York State Legislature passed the Farm Laborers Fair Practice Act. It has many new regulations for the new rules of farm worker employment. The two most obvious rules were the establishment of a 60-hour overtime limit and the right for farm workers to join a union of their choice. At the very last hour during final debates a Wage Board was added to the bill. The singular purpose of this wage board is to determine if the 60-hour standard is fair and accurate. This board, upon review, may hold it at 60 or lower it to a lower number. It cannot remove it or raise the limit above 60. This wage board is to be made up of three representatives. One from NY Farm Bureau, one from the AFL-CIO and one from NYS Labor.

One of the unsettling aspects of the passage of this Act was that there was no set time for the industry to adjust to this new 60-hour standard. Other similar passages in other States have always allowed a 5-year or longer period of time. This was very obviously omitted from this Act. Therefore, the industry has no security that this 60-hour level will remain a standard. Lurking in everyone’s mind is the very real possibility that the newly established wage board will institute a lower level.

The Wage Board will meet five times in early spring. This will range from February 28 to April 23, 2020. These will be public hearings at which time people may have three minutes to make a statement as to the ruling in question. It will be absolutely essential for many voices from agriculture to take the time to express their concerns. Failure to do so will send a strong message that agriculture is in full support of a lower standard for overtime on our farms.

All concerned citizens will be afforded the opportunity to express their opinion. This means advocates for a 40-hour standard will be sharing the stage. We must counter this by offering concise logical reasons this simply has no economic room at this time on our farms.

I will be in attendance at the last 4 hearings. I personally will offer comments at two of the hearings. It is

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

so critical that despite your very busy work schedules you present at least at one of these hearings. We will only curtail future damage if we present a consistent argument. Below you will find some supporting reading for you on this. You must register on-line before the hearing. You will not be offered an opportunity to speak if you do not register. Below you will find the web address for you to register. www.ny.gov/content/flflpa-wage-board-hearings-sign

If you have any difficulty feel free to reach out to me for help.

You may struggle with what to say. Three minutes is really not very long. They stick to the three-minute time. Do not waist time with polite openings. Get directly to the issue. You will be asked to leave a written copy. The fact that you present will be as important as what you say. Your silence will be filled by voices for advocates for 40 hours. Can you really justify this? This is perhaps the most critical battle you will ever have to face. Farming in 2020 has no room for survival at 40 hours. The grocery stores will be fully stocked but not with food from New York farms.

Message From Brian Reeves – PLEASE PARTICIPATE IN THE WAGE BOARD HEARINGS THIS MARCH AND APRIL

 As you can see by the attached announcement, the NYSDOL has scheduled 5 hearings across the state for the newly appointed Wage Board.  It is imperative that farmers and farmworkers turn out and tell their stories.  If we are to have any chance of convincing Albany to keep the overtime threshold at 60-hours, we need to tell our story of how lowering the threshold will threaten the viability of our farms.  While our economic story is critical, we must also make sure that farmworkers turn out also and tell why they do not want their hours cut any more.  These hearings come at a bad time for us, many of us don’t have many of our workers hear yet and we will be getting very busy soon, but we must make the effort to show up and be heard.  I have attached some guidelines on how to have your workers testify and I believe Farm Bureau also has some tips on testifying.  Please reach out to me if you need any help.

 Brian Reeves 315-243-1660

 NYSDOL Announces Farm Labor Wage Board Hearings

The New York State Department of Labor (DOL) has announced that the wage board will hold five hearings across the state, beginning this Friday and going through April. The wage board was created by the recently enacted Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act and is statutorily required to hold its first hearing by March 1st to consider lowering the current 60-hour work week threshold for overtime. Under the Act, the Wage Board must hold at least three hearings at which the public will be afforded an opportunity to provide comments.  The board will hold five hearings in various parts of the state and consider the input it gathers from farmers and other stakeholders.

New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher, a NEDPA member from Madrid, NY holds one seat on the three-member wage board. The other two members include Brenda McDuffie, appointed by the DOL Commissioner, and Denis Hughes, representing AFL-CIO. McDuffie is the chair of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and President and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League. Hughes has served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and is past President of NY AFL-CIO.

Public hearings are scheduled as follows: 

  •  Friday, February 28– 11am – Albany – New York State Museum Cultural Education Center, Clark Auditorium, 222 Madison Avenue, Albany, NY 12230
  • Friday, March 13– 11am – Syracuse – Onondaga Community College, Storer Auditorium,  4585 W. Seneca Turnpike, Syracuse, NY  13215
  • Monday, March 23– 11am– Binghamton – Binghamton University, Symposium Hall, Center of Excellence Building Innovative Technology Complex, 45 Murray Hill Road, Vestal, NY 13850
  •  Thursday, April 16– 11am – Long Island – Brookhaven Town Hall, 1 Independence Hill, Farmingville, NY 11738
  • Thursday, April 23– 11am – Batavia – Geneseo Community College, William Stuart Forum, 1 College Rd., Batavia, NY

    All attendees are encouraged to preregister. Those making public comment will be scheduled in the order of registration. Individuals can register at: http://www.labor.ny.gov/farmwageboard.

TALKING POINTS FOR FARM WORKERS AT THE WAGE BOARD HEARINGS

 1.Overtime after 60 hours

Most farm workers I have talked to have said they want to make as much money as they can to send back to their families.  At first, the payment of time-and-one-half sounds good until the farmer explains that they won’t be able to pay that much and will try to limit their hours to close to 60 per week.  Most farmworkers are not pleased with the reduction in hours per week, but often times 60 is not that much less than most weeks they have worked in the past so they can live with it.  But most workers have made it clear that if the hours decrease much more, they will go to other states which will freely allow them to work more hours and make more money per week.  Explaining this to the farm worker is critical so they can explain in the hearing they don’t want this restriction on work and will try to go where they can get more hours.

  1. Mandatory 1 day of rest per week which the worker can opt out of and if they opt out, all hours worked are paid at time-and-one-half

The vast majority of farms have determined that they can’t afford much overtime, so they require one 24-hour period off each week.  This automatically reduces the potential number of hours a worker will be paid for each week and again the workers are not happy about it.

  1. I often hear farmers talk about how much less money their workers can make working in Mexico.  Whenever labor advocates hear this they bristle at the comment and claim that this is the USA and the pay and/or housing should be much better than Mexico.  

A better way to approach this subject would be to have the farm worker talk about the opportunity that working in the US provides, and describe the decent house his family can afford in Mexico, and how he is able to provide a better living for his family because he has a chance to work on our farms in the US.

  1.  I would suggest having conversations with ALL of your workers (both domestic and immigrant) about the purpose of these hearings and if you have any doubts about the language comprehension, consider hiring a good translator to avoid any misunderstanding later. I hope these tips are helpful and should only be followed if it fits for your farm.  The more discussion you can have with your farm workers about the issues the more comfortable they will be talking about them when the time comes.  

 

Three Hearings Down—What Have We Learned?

As we draw closer to some decision by the New York State Legislature on what will be the details in the final version of the Farm Worker Labor Bill we should try to reflect on what we have seen.

To begin with, I was very proud of the quality of each and every testimony given by our industry. No two were alike. Each exposed a unique aspect of agriculture. Regardless if the testimony was from Morrisville or out on Long Island the message was consistent. Here are some of the conclusions offered by everyone.

To begin, this issue will impact all types of agriculture. Fruit, dairy vegetable or any other type will be impacted. Each stated the reality that they are Price Takers. Supply and demand will dictate the returns. We do not have the ability to increase our prices to offset increases in our individual operation. We either can or cannot succeed under the existing price structure. Unlike public government we cannot vote in an increase.

Every report stated a huge respect and dependency on their employees. They knew how dependent they were in having these people in their operation. Every effort was made to meet employee needs.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Almost every farm reported long repeated years of consistent service. Likewise, employees when asked reported a comfort in the relationship they had with their employers.

What struck me was the reality that we were being asked to support a legislative change to a system that was not broken or under stress. Usually new legislation is created to replace flawed conditions. Could each situation be improved? Yes, of course.  It appeared that when an issue did arise the employee and employers were able to discuss and make changes.

The two large issues seem to be collective bargaining and overtime. Farms in general were not really opposed to giving employees the right to collective bargaining so long as they were assured of a no strike clause. As one farmer stated we have been “collectively bargaining” for years with our employees on a farm by farm basis.

Employees that testified showed a keen understanding of the economics of the farms they were working on. They understood that the farms were offering all that was possible. They also seemed to understand that yes it would be nice to receive more money but the farm could not pay 50% more and not have any more work accomplished. They wanted to have the unlimited hours and the stability of being employed in one place. They did not wish to join so many other Americans that today are struggling to make ends meet with two jobs.  I wager many US citizens wish they could have greater than 39 hours of work each week like these farm employees.

In short, it really comes down to the fact that in production agriculture we work on often times impossible margins. Competition for market share too often leaves low returns. I think these hearings have actually exposed the true economic reality of agriculture. It is not that farms are willingly underpaying their help but that they simply are maxed out. So long as technology does not offer a cheaper way to bring the food to the market place we will see this struggle to satisfy everyone’s expectations.

Farming is certainly not for everyone. It is a demanding vocation with mixed returns. I feel it will always be dependent on world, national and local supply and demand. We are all very fortunate to have people who are willing to accept the challenge of agriculture and those who find value in working in it. Governments have the ability to make farms less profitable but they do not have the ability to guarantee economic success. While some may idealistically state this is solely a moral issue the reality of it is a simple question of basic economics.

 

So, What is Happening as Far as Overtime?

The wheels of Democracy are moving. Exactly where they will stop is the question. As a grower you must be filled with more questions than answers on this legislative activity. I will try to bring you up to speed. I must tell you that at this time it is totally up in the air as to which way it will end.

To begin, we have two basically identical bills in play. Senate Bill 2877 sponsored by Senator Ramos from the Queens. She is a freshman Democrat. The key issues to her bill are the following; Overtime after 8 hours each day and overtime after 40 hours in a week; Collective bargaining; Mandatory day of rest each week. The Assembly has a very similar Bill 2750 carried by Assemblywoman Nolan, Democrat, from Queens. In the next couple months the plan is to have several hearings across the State to review and discuss these bills. At this time the specifics of when and where these events will take place are not set.

In an effort to be objective I think the authors of these bills most likely have good intensions. The issue is they have very incomplete information from which to draw their conclusions. It is our intention that we will be able to bring both sides to a clear understanding of the facts. I will tell you it is currently very difficult as there has been very little effort thus far to understand the conditions on a modern farm in New York State by the two authors of these Bills.

According to a 2019 report from Farm Credit East, mandatory overtime would increase labor costs on farms by almost $300 million and decrease net farm income by almost 25%. Net farm income is down 50% from a few years ago and farmers have little to no control over the prices they receive for the products they offer for market.

Farm workers have repeatedly stressed to farmers that the number of hours available to work weigh

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

heavily in their decision to work on a particular farm.  If a farm must reduce hours to fall under the overtime threshold, it would most likely force existing workers to look elsewhere for a job making a tight labor market even more stressed.

Collective bargaining has long been a grave concern for farms. The reality is that this is not such a threat so long as we can have a “No Strike” clause added. Currently there is none in either Bill. The mandatory day of rest needs to be amended to read “voluntary” day of rest. During peak harvest times neither farmers nor farm workers wish to be forced to sit.

What can you do? As the announcements become known, you need to voice your individual story as to how this Bill would impact your farm. If possible, have your employees offer their voice as to how they feel about the impact of this Bill on their lives. If you can take the time to offer testimony, do so. If not, submit written accounts of this Bill on your future. If the opportunity presents itself, be present to show solidarity to this issue. I cannot stress enough the best time to deal with a Bill is before it gets passed and signed into law. We need to stop or dramatically force changes to this Bill in the Senate and Assembly. Once it passes both chambers most feel there is little doubt the Governor will sign it.

Everyone wishes we were not faced with this challenge. The 8 hour per day and 40 hour per week version will, if passed, dramatically alter New York agriculture. We simply will not be able to meet national prices. As much as you may not like it, some form of overtime will very likely be in play. We need to get these numbers at a level we can still hire labor and remain competitive in the market place.

The details of this bill will have enormous implications on New York State agriculture and the up-state economy. It will serve no one to complain later if we do not make every effort to meet the challenges of this bill head on.

Overtime?

I think it is time we take a look at OVERTIME. We hear so much about what a great opportunity it can be for employees. Likewise, we hear almost every employer held in fear of what it will do to their profitability. So, as in most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In modern times, overtime became a tool during FDR. The nation was struggling to survive in a world depression. The bread lines were enormous. People were desperate to find any work. No one was demanding to receive overtime. So why would FDR impose overtime on employers who were struggling to survive. The President saw that he needed to somehow get more people to have a job. He felt that if he imposed time and half after 40 hours he would encourage employers to look to employ new faces to fill those hours at the initial pay rate. In short, he was not trying to giv

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

e employees a benefit for working longer. Rather he was trying to get new faces off the breadlines.

Today most all hourly workers have overtime in their portfolio. My question is, what does it really do for them but limit their ability to earn beyond 40 hours? I realize I grew up on a farm. We did not ever discuss our hours or overtime. I also recall being the sole provider for my young family. I was very grateful that I was not limited to 40 hours. It would have dramatically reduced my income potential. So my question for legislators that are concerned about helping the life of hourly employees, is overtime hurting or helping? Thinking outside of the box I could argue that legislators could make the case that they should increase the overtime cap from 40 to 50. This would make it much easier for those workers to support their families if they could simply remain on their primary job longer. To find a second job is very difficult and almost always for a lower hourly wage. I know this is not a current idea but I challenge people to find the flaw in what I am asking.

Agriculture is different. This is a subject that I feel needs to be discussed but on a national stage. My challenge is that before we attack the system in agriculture we take a long creative look at how we might make New York a much better place to work and raise a family. This move alone would encourage new growth in business and attract business to New York State. That would really be a refreshing change.

 

Senate Bill 2837 and Assembly Bill 2750

Here are some considerations for talking points.

  • A fact that no one wishes to address is in this case everyone is trying to improve the future for farm workers. While it may, on first glance, seem this is false, it is very true. Those of us in the industry know what will happen to the income opportunity for this group if this Bill passes. While good intentions are involved, it will harm the very people it wishes to help.
  • Overtime almost always limits the income potential for workers. While it is intended to reward the good employee, it most often limits the employee’s income potential. The end result is the employee is left with fewer dollars.
  • The reality is that farm employees represent a very specific skill set. Just because you increase a perk
    Paul Baker,
    Executive Director
    NYSHS

    such as overtime does not mean you will suddenly have new employees with the necessary skill set. There are only 700 players in the world with enough skill to play major league baseball. If you increase the pay there will still only be 700 players with such skills. Farm employees are in such a skill set. Supply and demand should set their income value. It has in the past and no doubt it will in the future. But it needs to be noted that to simply increase over time we will not see a new wave of citizens capable or willing to be a farm employee. Farm wages are above most retail today and yet we need to import our employees because domestic workers do not have the skill or desire to fill these jobs.

  • Our fear is if this bill, as drafted, is passed it will force farms to dramatically shift their product mix away from labor to mechanized crops. This would be such a culture shift it would be impossible to reverse. End result would be that not only farm employees but NYS employees working in milk plants, processing plants and other crop related tasks jobs would be gone.
  • NYS is an import state for farm employees. As previously noted, these employees are in short supply. They will have other opportunities to work in other states that will allow them to have the hours they desire for the time they are willing to sacrifice to be away from their homes. In short then we may very well be faced with a very high level of unfilled jobs.