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Farmworkers angered after state labor department punts on 40-hour work week

Boxes with harvested zucchini on background with busy workers .
Beginning in January, the New York State Department of Labor will hold more hearings on whether farmworkers should receive overtime pay after working 40 hours a week.

The state’s Farm Laborers Wage Board bypassed a legal deadline of Dec. 15 to decide whether farmworkers should receive overtime pay after working 40 hours a week.

The state’s Department of Labor said it will instead hold more hearings on the issue beginning in January.

State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, citing a law passed in 2019, last year ordered the Farm Laborers Wage Board to decide by Dec. 15 of this year whether to implement a 40-hour work week for farmworkers.

The farmworkers would be entitled to overtime if they worked more than that, similar to rules that apply to every other industry in the state.

But instead of issuing a ruling, the Labor Department announced more hearings to look into the issue. They will be held on Jan. 4, Jan. 18 and another date yet to be finalized.

That decision angered some farmworkers and their union allies, who held a Zoom call to urge the Labor Department to move faster. Luis, a 17-year veteran of farm work who did not want to give his last name, said he and other workers don’t want to harm the state’s agricultural industry. But he said they deserve to be treated like other workers and receive overtime after 40 hours, and designated days off for rest. He spoke through an interpreter.

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“We work in the cold and the heat. We work in extreme temperatures. We don’t complain when we’re working,” Luis said. “But we’re not machines that can just be replaced. We are essential workers.”

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said New York should follow the lead of other states, including Washington state, which have already successfully implemented a 40-hour work week.

“The truth is this: Businesses adapt, the market adjusts," Appelbaum said. "Consumers reward employers who treat their workers right, and businesses can survive and thrive. … (Farmworkers) deserve dignity and respect at work.”

Farm owners are pleased that there will be more time to debate the issue. Grow NY Farms, an advocacy group whose members include the New York Farm Bureau, said there’s wide support to keep the 60-hour limit for now, and that “lowering the overtime threshold would irreparably harm” the state’s food supply and agricultural diversity.

Earlier this month, farm owners who came to the Capitol said they are still struggling to accommodate the 60-hour work week limit that was imposed at the beginning of 2020.

Peter Ten Eyck, whose family has owned Indian Ladder Farms in Albany County for generations, said farmers also work long hours alongside their hired workers, and their often-slim profit margins mean they are also underpaid, compared to other types of work. He predicted that a quick transition to paying overtime after 40 hours would hasten the trend of small farms disappearing.

“We’re going to lose farms, the weaker ones first,” Ten Eyck said. “And then the big one will hit when young people are no longer going to go into farming because there’s no money in it.”

The farm owners cited a Cornell University study, commissioned by the state Labor Department and released in late November. It found nearly two-thirds of dairy farmers who were questioned said they would move out of milk production or end farming altogether if a 40-hour work week were enacted.

Fruit and vegetable farmers who were surveyed said they would like to hire more workers to avoid paying overtime beyond 40 hours, but they don’t think there are enough potential workers in the existing labor pool and they're unsure whether they could afford to build more housing to accommodate extra workers. Half said that they would close their farms as well. Sixty-nine farmworkers who are employed under the H-2A federal immigrant worker program were also surveyed, and nearly three-quarters said they might not seek work in another state if farmers were to forgo paying overtime and cap their hours at 40 a week.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.