Local Farms See Labor Changes as Possible ‘Death Knell’

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Jeff King and his family appear to be doing well in the dairy industry. To supplement its membership in a milk cooperative, King Brothers Dairy, a century-old dairy near Schuylerville, has introduced home milk delivery, an on-farm store and ice cream parlor, and expanded into grocery store chains during the last decade.

Behind the background, King is worried that potential legislative changes to how he pays his employees may be the final nail in the coffin for small family-run farms like his, which are already struggling to retain employees and operate on razor-thin prof

The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act was formed by the 2019 Farm Workers Bill, which was signed by former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. The bill established a required day of rest for farm employees, as well as disability and unemployment benefits, paid family leave, collective bargaining rights, and overtime pay. As part of the bill, a Wage Board comprised of advocacy group leaders and government officials was created, and the Board decided on a threshold of 60 hours worked per week before a farm employee could be eligible for overtime pay.

The reduction in hours might have an impact on how farms operate: The crossing of this threshold, according to Ammerman, would restrict crop diversity on farms, limit technical innovation on farms, and lower the amount of New York-grown food accessible in markets and for food security programs.

The implications of a 60-hour barrier are already visible, according to Ammerman, and would likely be amplified if the 40-hour-per-week limit is achieved. Fruit trees that need a lot of effort, such as peaches and cherries, have been removed from orchards in favor of fruit trees that require less labor. The Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act mandates that all agricultural laborers be provided a statutory day of rest, and that if a laborer works on that day even though they have not hit the overtime level, they are still paid time-and-one-half regular overtime pay, which has pushed up farm labor prices.

Agricultural Credit East forecasts that if the lower level is implemented, farm labor expenses in New York will rise by 42 percent, when combined with the state’s previous and planned minimum wage rises and higher pay safeguards.

Working hours may be stretched out to satisfy wage laws in places like California, which will drop its threshold to 40 hours per week on Jan. 1, 2022. New York, on the other hand, does not have such a long growing season. Long hours are required to bring in the harvest on crop-based farms with limited growing seasons, such as the eight-week harvest window for apples (one of New York’s top crops).

King utilizes both local employees and migrant workers from other nations who come to the farm via the federal H-2A program.

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According to King, lowering the overtime barrier will discourage H-2A employees from coming to New York since they may work longer hours in other states and send more money back home. Because the farms supply needs like accommodation (which is required under the H-2A program) and transportation, the money earned by those employees seldom stays in the local economy. Farm employment is often better paying than other labor-intensive sectors for locally rooted people, and if a farmer limits the hours offered to farm laborers to avoid overtime compensation, such workers may have to find a second job at a lower pay grade to maintain an income standard.

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