Is There a Light at the End of This Debate?

Outside of my window winter is in full force. Nothing even remotely resembles spring. The Wage Board has rendered us a temporary reprieve as far as any new threshold for overtime. In 2021 we can continue to hone our labor management skills at the 60-hour level. In the short term this offers us some time to shift our operations to meet this challenge. As farmers, unlike other industries, we are better prepared to look at issues in longer time slots than a single year. Orchards take years to mature. We need to treat this issue in a similar manner. Where we are today in 2021 will most likely be a short resting spot from the final landing spot on this issue.

In my opinion, the debate is only on hold. I think there are many social indicators in and outside of our State that indicate sweeping changes are developing. I think it is almost a certainty that we will see a national $15 minimum wage. We all are aware that state minimum wages have little similarity in actual paid beginning wages. One only has to hold up two charts and see this. If you compare each state minimum wage against the state required Adverse Effect Wage rate you will see little similarity. In Georgia, the state minimum wage is $5.15 per hour while the adverse effect wage rate is $11.71.  The Georgia wage could never be used as the federal rate is $7.25. Raising the federal rate to a universally realistic rate for everyone to $15 does help keep production costs across state lines in line. The real differential will be the application of overtime levels.

The National Council of Agriculture Employers did a study in April 2020. They found a remarkably high inflated US unemployment rate due to Covid-19. They reported that there were 275,000 agricultural jobs listed yet only saw 337,000 people even making an inquiry. Needless to say, very few of these inquiries resulted in a job being taken. In short, high unemployment rates and higher state minimum wage rates do not equal farm hires.

I think we should examine trends in hours of weekly employment. In the US employees reported 41.5 hours. I find that at the same time 11.1% of US employees worked in excess of 50 hours per week. This tells me that many people are in need of more than 40 hours per week to meet household needs. I wonder how many of those 11.1% would have liked to remain at their primary job instead of seeking other odd jobs offering a lower hourly wage.

I think, while it may be difficult for most of us, we must accept new levels of comfort. Today’s employee will not work the hours of past generations. Everywhere we look we see business making better usage of the fewer man hours today’s employee will share with us. Stores have cut hours by having self-checkouts. On the NYS Thruway we no longer have employees in toll booths. Our challenge today is when we cannot find enough workers, we must find ways to make them more productive for us.

The light at the end of this debate, as I see it, is we must first accept that we must get our work done with fewer hands. To do this we must find new means of increasing the fewer man hours we have. Automation will be in essence the new “man” on the job.

The push to bring all our farm workers to a 40-hour work week will not end. In the short time we must learn new methods to accomplish the job. To refuse to do this is to fail. We no longer walk to work. First, we rode a horse. Next, we drove a car. Today we do not even leave our homes, we ZOOM!  The only thing we know for certain is that tomorrow will be different from today. We need to evolve. I think in time we will be able to focus on the new light at the end of the tunnel.

Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act -Part Two

One year ago we all were trying to project what might happen in Albany with the new party balance. It really came as no surprise that we would be faced with a huge effort to alter the farm worker rules in our State. After months of the most united effort by NYS agriculture the Governor recently passed the Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act. It was hoped that if and when such an act would be passed we could each make long term plans based upon the act. This is not the case. The ink is not dry from the signature by the Governor and there are rumblings by the Senate and Assembly that they want more.

In August I currently know of two meetings to be held by agriculture to discuss first the current Act and second what we need to do to be prepared by the new demands. Unfortunately in my opinion this act has opened up a new energy by those who do not wish to understand agriculture to do even more. The newly created farm worker review board is of course one concern. The second is that by gaining passage of this act those in the legislature have gained new energy to push for more. We had hoped we would have time to absorb the new Act.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Questions are coming in faster than answers. Every farm now has to have in place a procedure to deal with when and if their employees wish to unionize.  What impact will it have on every farm in NYS if a farm is unionized and that farm is forced to meet new rules from labor? Will this then not set a precedent to be pushed upon all farms?  We need to really have frequent and open discussions with our help as to if they are approached by labor organizers how to respond. No doubt the picture that will be presented will be void of many of the realities of unionization.

In short, farms are very much in jeopardy moving forward. I can only hope that we can maintain our united collective voice in dealing with this new round of challenges to be flowing from Albany. I must admit I personally felt very defeated when I saw the details in the new Act. The fact is we will need to maintain our voice now more than ever. Not only are the roots of our crops here but so are those of our farms and families.  I personally understand if you have a feeling of frustration. I suggest you lick your wounds and prepare to meet the next round. To lie down now is to virtually turn the keys to your farm and the farms of the next generations over. I have to ask myself what would my ancestors have done? I know for a fact my parents would be sitting fire!

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.

 

Hearing at Morrisville SUNY on Farm Labor

Thank you for the opportunity to present some objective observations from my position as the Executive Director of NYS Horticultural Society during the last ten years. For 40 years earlier I was the owner operator of Baker Farms in Niagara County. This was a fruit and vegetable fresh operation. My observations then come from two different perspectives. I have real world farm “boots on the ground” and organizational experiences.

I applaud the efforts to have multiple hearings so that every side of this discussion may be uncovered.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

In my opinion, the Senate and Assembly bills we are here to discuss have long lasting implications for all of New York State agriculture and the entire up state economy. In short we need to get this right!

To begin, I am certain that everyone here has the most sincere intentions to make certain all farm workers are given every protection under the law. Farming is different from almost any other occupation. It requires total dedication to your craft. Traditional norms often do not apply. Societies have attempted and failed, such as in the Communist models, to remove the farm from the owner. In my opinion, farming is in many ways similar to being a parent.  Just as when your child has a need, you address it with no regards to time. When a crop needs to be harvested or a herd needs to be milked it has to be addressed. Farming seldom can be slotted in an 8 hour or 40 hour time slot.

When you select agriculture as your career path you accept certain realities. Just as one accepts if you are a doctor you cannot dictate when your expectant mother will deliver her child.

Agriculture, unlike public government is dependent on producing products that will meet public demand. Each farm must produce and market within the economics of the supply and demand chains. Unlike State Government that can dictate annual increases in minimum wage. Agriculture pricing is a product of world and national supplies. Buyers will seek the highest quality for the lowest price. Always have and always will. Our grocery stores will never be void of the highest quality produce and food products. The sad truth is that if New York fails to produce one gallon of milk or one bushel of apples our local shelves will remain 100% stocked.

It is this reality that brings me to my question for this body. What is the desired end best result from this legislation? It will not serve any farm worker if we create legislation that does not allow agriculture to remain competitive in this food marketing supply chain.  If farms cannot meet payrolls they will be forced to close or dramatically alter their product choices. They will be forced to downsize, move away from labor intensive agriculture or close. In each of these examples it does not offer greater opportunities for farm employees.

We have the opportunity to calmly explore numerous options beyond the current language in the  Senate and Assembly bills. I honestly feel that the final wording of these Bills can be drafted that will allow NYS Agriculture to remain a leader in production. It also can find ways to mutually protect both the employer and employee from unfair labor practices. No one wins if the final legislation is not forward thinking in ways to see Agriculture continue in New York State.

I am encouraged that we are having these hearings. I pray for cool heads. I know that farm workers are some of the hardest and most talented workers. All of New York Agriculture is united in finding ways to protect and reward farm employees. To use an old saying we must be very careful in drafting this legislation so that we do not “throw the baby out with the bath water!”

Thank you for the opportunity to address this hearing.