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.