Words Do Matter
We are each victims of our limited environment. We find comfort in living each day only reading the headlines. Our lives are so full that this quick assessment of the day’s topics is really all we have time to connect with. We each hear a specific word and our brain quickly assigns it to a definition.
As an industry, we need to help program our neighbors and customers to 2021. When the average person hears the term “farm worker” or even more refined “farm employee” it creates an image. Not being critical, I would venture a guess that the image is of a man (not a woman) toiling in the sun performing some menial task. This stereotype hurts us. It is there because we have not taken sufficient effort to foster a more accurate one.
I imagine the public sees this individual making minimum wage with little to no benefits. That being the case, it is no wonder that this public has compassion for this individual. When they hear that this person does not receive overtime protection until after 60 hours, they feel concerned. We have a choice. We can choose to allow this backward definition or work to educate. In my opinion, if we do not act today to redefine this image there is no doubt, we will receive more regulations placed upon both our employees and ourselves.
In less than one year the Wage Board will meet to review the working standards once again for our employees. We have this limited time to educate our peers in our communities that these are highly skilled and motivated people. They do what they do because of their training. Really no different from any employees on any job. No one forces them to their daily work. They do so because it is the job of their personal selection.
Most are employed well above the minimum wage. Many are salaried. Many come from as far away as South Africa to operate equipment often with a higher value than the homes in our communities. They have unique skills that the average citizen does not. This skill is why they are here to work. They often receive many non-cash perks such as free transportation from their homeland and free housing.
To suggest that this is a very misunderstood person is a gross understatement. We are extremely fortunate to have their services. Most local citizens do not have the ability to step in and perform these necessary tasks. The performance of these skills opens thousands of local jobs in our communities.
What is in danger here is that a small group of people will make their decisions from the old stereotype. They will not pause to ask this employee why he or she is here in our State. They will not ask what conditions of employment make working in New York State his final destination. When the time is taken to dig deeper it will become clear that the job work agreements currently in place are both fair and necessary to both sides. To alter the work option to only 40 hours would force this skilled employee to seek work elsewhere.
We must each make it our personal responsibility to educate the truth, not the false image of years gone by. To do this we must tell our tale in our churches, our schools, and our communities. We have the soils, the climate, and the long tradition of agriculture in New York State. We produce a product that every consumer on the globe needs three times a day. I encourage each of you to begin the education of our farms story. It is a proud story which needs to be protected.