Interview with 100 Jamaicans

I am again in the middle of harvest. This usually gives me the opportunity to talk to growers, packers, and storage operators. I also have the opportunity to talk one on one with Jamaican employees here on H2A contracts. I want to do two things here share with you my collective observations of these men and second perhaps be a voice for them in this life changing discussion surrounding the Wage Board.

First, I am very impressed with the accurate knowledge these men have of the Overtime legislation. You may notice here that I do not refer to this as a collective bargaining/union discussion. To a man they reject the concept of unions and dues.

It is almost unanimous that these men wish to continue working here in New York State.  It has become an extremely critical way for them to support their families. The greatest share of these men have found annual employment with a singular employer. They refer to the farm they work on as their own. Many know the geography of these orchards as well or better than their employers. They understand the ebbs and flow of the industry. They know the pressure that frost, hail, drought, and market pricing places have on their employer as well as offering them a living wage.

To this end they know that the economics of these farms has its economic limits. They understand that it would be wonderful to receive overtime after 40 hours. However, they know that if this were to happen, they would be extremely limited in their hours. Their season is short. To not have the opportunity to work at least 60 hours would mean they would take a huge seasonal reduction in pay. They do not wish to seek new employment but feel it would be necessary if they were to earn the desired income, they need to support their families.

To this reality, they say they can function with the rules as they are presently in place. Any reduction in hours would force the majority to look to new out of State employment. They understand the present legislation and strongly hope that there are no new standards. They are preparing a self-written letter stating this opinion. They have asked me to give them reading materials to help prepare this letter. They will discuss it and plan to sign on each man. We will send this to the Wage Board as their voice on the topic. This is especially important that they have the opportunity to offer their opinion on this ruling.

I am extremely impressed with the level of knowledge this group has as to the importance of the Wage Board. Make no mistake they feel extremely nervous as to the decision coming from this body.

I wanted to share with each of you the feelings of these workers. So often we selfishly only state how it will impact our lives. Make no mistake about it, this decision impacts families here is New York State as well as in Jamaica.

Paul Baker

Executive Director

Public Hearing on Farm Worker Fair Labor Practice Act Senate Bill 2837, SUNY Sullivan, Loch Sheldrake, NY

My name is Paul Baker. I grew up in Niagara County on a fruit and vegetable farm. I was the fifth generation to work on this farm. My Son Brett would follow me and be the last, sixth generation.  I have always lived with “farm workers.”  My father worked for over 25 years with the same migrant family from Florida. In the winter they harvested citrus in the Ocala area of Florida. When the citrus was harvested they traveled to our farm to harvest our crops. Each mid-November they returned to Florida to the citrus.

I grew up with these people. After work I played basketball with them in the barn. Once, when I was struggling with my high school French studies, my Dad’s foreman, a WWII vet, made me only converse with him in French. A language he learned while serving our country in the war. Later when the farms labor was from Jamaica my son would go each night to the Housing and enjoy music with the men, his friends.  I tell you this because in agriculture we have a very strong bond with our help. They really are an extended family. For 18 years we welcomed basically the same men to our farm to complete the growing cycle. The housing was always very close to our own. After my Father passed away my Mother was asked if she felt unsafe living so close to the camp? Her reply was” I feel much more at risk when they are not there.”

I tell you this multi-generational tale to try to illustrate the unique bond we have with our employees. To suggest that we would not have their best interest in mind is to not comprehend this bond. If we mistreated our employees, then why did they come back each year?

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

I have heard in the two previous hearings statements to the effect that farms could always pay more to their employees. This is not an economic issue but a moral one. Over the years we have had to find ways to offer increased wages. Cost of living continue to increase. History will support me when I tell you that agriculture has met this challenge through research  improvements in farming practices. Higher yielding orchards, improved root stocks, labor saving equipment have been ways we have been able to meet these increases in labor costs.

In principle I find many of the items in this bill misleading. To people who do not know our history you would be led to believe our employees do have basic protections such as workers compensation or unemployment. All of our housing is state and often federally inspected. Farm owners, for years, attend self-improvement seminars on compliance and ways to improve human resources.

I think it is time for both sides to try to find ways to continue this long positive history of farm employees in New York State. To do this, both sides must agree that at the conclusion of this effort we will have a strong base for agriculture in our State. Only then can both sides continue. Yes this is a moral issue. Unfortunately, even in houses of worship they find it necessary to pass the plate. Economics is a fact of life.

I think I speak for farms across this State. We are willing to discuss issues and find solutions to meet your request for the big questions of the day, those are at what level can we afford overtime and collective bargaining, so long as it has a no strike clause. I hear many want a mandatory day of rest included. I would offer that often this should be left to the wishes of the employees and the seasonal pressures of the moment.

I am here to tell you that the system is not broken. We do not have employees on strike or in the streets carrying protest banners. Can we improve conditions? Every human resource situation today can only reply, of course.

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.