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NYS Assembly, Senate pass Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act despite objections from local leaders

Press Releases

Thu, Jun 20th 2019 09:55 am

New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and Labor Committee Chairman Marcos Crespo on Wednesday announced the Assembly passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act (A.8419, Nolan). They said the Assembly majority worked for more than two decades to ensure farmworkers are not subject to unfair labor practices. Moreover, they explained the measure grants collective bargaining rights, overtime pay, a day of rest and expansion of workers’ compensation benefits, as well as other worker rights and protections to all farmworkers.

“Here in the Assembly majority we pride ourselves on standing up for the rights of the hard working men and women across New York,” Heastie said. “Farmworkers deserve proper protections for the physically taxing, sometimes dangerous work they do that fuels our agricultural sector and puts food on our tables. They are vital to keeping New York’s farms working and play a pivotal role in the health and well-being of our residents.”

Crespo said, “There is a significant demand for farmworkers in New York and across the country. The work they do is vitally important to all of our communities. After years of advocacy, we are finally able to deliver more protections and safer working conditions.”

The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act was created to “allow for the creation of a work environment for farming communities with clear worker protections,” including:

•Deeming individuals employed as farm laborers as “employees” under the New York State Employment Relations Act, which would grant them the right to organize and collectively bargain;

•Granting overtime pay equivalent to at least of 1.5 times the laborer’s regular rate of pay after 60 hours a week;

•Requiring 24 hours of consecutive rest per week, while giving the worker the ability to choose to work on their day off with overtime;

•Expanding unemployment insurance coverage to all farm workers, and eliminating of the requirement that mandates employers make unemployment contributions for farm labor performed by seasonal H-2A visa workers who cannot collect the benefits;

•Expanding eligibility for workers’ compensation coverage and establishing eligibility for disability benefits;

•Requiring all employers to post notices regarding their compliance with workers’ compensation requirements in both English and Spanish;

•Establishing fines for violations of such posting requirements;

•Prohibiting discrimination against an employee for filing injury claims for injuries incurred in the course of employment; and

•Establishing a Farm Laborers Wage Board to provide recommendations as to additional overtime for farm laborers.

These amendments would give farmworkers many of the same employment rights currently available to workers in other industries across New York state.

Heastie’s press release stated, “The agriculture industry depends on the collaboration of farmers and farm laborers to produce the many crops and agricultural products we consume. However, farm laborers are not covered by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act or the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The omission of farm laborers as employees under these federal laws denies basic labor protections to an essential community.”

In New York the agriculture industry yields approximately $5 billion annually and is responsible for nearly 198,000 jobs. There are more than 35,000 farms across the state, most of which are family owned. Agriculture production is seasonal and dependent on weather. Planting and harvesting schedules are unlike any other industry, with livestock most often requiring around-the-clock care.

The press release added, “Today’s legislation would assist in the improvement of working conditions of New York’s agriculture industry and ensure that our farms have the flexibility and resources they need to continue to operate and maintain these critical jobs.”

The New York State Senate also passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. Its legislation, S.6578, was sponsored by Sen. Jessica Ramos.

Ramos said, “The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act has lingered in this body for 20 years, with seven sponsors on both sides of the aisle. I am proud today to be the eighth and last sponsor of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. I have traveled to seven counties in New York, visited 14 farms, talked to countless farmworkers, and held three hearings on this bill. There are 80,000-100,000 farmworkers that are the backbone of New York’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry. Today we are correcting a historic injustice, a remnant of Jim Crow-era laws, to affirm that those farmworkers must be granted rights just as any other worker in New York.”

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said, “The agriculture industry is crucial to New York’s economy and workforce. Today we are standing up for farm laborers and giving them the rights that they deserve while continuing to work with the agriculture industry to help them be successful. I applaud Senator Ramos for championing this bill and working to build a stronger, and fairer, agriculture industry across New York state.”

Ramos held three hearings in Central New York, Long Island and the Hudson Valley. She also visited 14 farms across seven counties in New York. The hearings gave a chance for concerned citizens, laborers, and farm owners to provide testimony on how the legislation would work best for their industry.

Local elected leaders were not in favor of this legislation.

Assemblyman Angelo J. Morinello said, “Passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is a devastating blow to an already struggling New York state farm industry. During harvest seasons, our farmers pay employees a living wage along with food, medical, transportation and housing until they relocate to harvest the next crop. This bill will interfere with this system that was explicitly put in place due to the uniqueness of the industry.

“Long-term, I fear this bill will force many farmers out of business and leave thousands of farm workers without sufficient employment opportunities. It’s disappointing that downstate members of the majority pushed this bill through without considering the harm it could cause, and I’m hopeful the governor will reconsider before signing it into law.”

State Sen. Chris Jacobs criticized the Democrat majority for passing a bill that he said would cause “irreparable harm to the state’s already fragile agriculture industry.”

His press release said, “The bill, dubbed by supporter’s as the Farm Laborers Fair Practice Act, was approved in a party-line vote, despite strong and wide opposition from respected stakeholders like the New York Farm Bureau, Grow NY Farms, Farm Credit East, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and countless upstate and family owned farms.”

“Adding $300 million in operating costs on to the backs of New York’s farmers is anything but fair,” Jacobs said. “Nor is it fair to the suppliers and other industries dependent on a thriving agriculture economy, and in reality it is even more unfair to the very farm workers the supporters of this bill claim to want to help.”

Again, his press release noted, “Objectionable provisions of the bill include restricting the number of consecutive days that farm employees can work, and new mandatory overtime requirements that will either dramatically increase labor costs, lead to fewer hours worked and less money earned for workers, or potential loss of product that loses value due to delayed harvesting.

“Critics of the bill have stated that it fails to take into consideration the need for flexibility in scheduling with such a weather-dependent and time-sensitive industry. It also fails to recognize that farm, migrant and H2A visa workers are seeking to maximize the number of hours they can work given the seasonal nature of what they do.

“Farm owners have argued that, if employees are denied the opportunity to work the maximum numbers of hours they would like to, and that are required due to the timing and conditions of the products that need to be harvested, they will simply go elsewhere for work. Their most likely destinations will be states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, or to Canada, all of whom compete directly with New York farms.”

Jacobs’ camp spoke to Dale Stein, senior partner of Stein Farms in Genesee County. He said, “We’re at the point, I think, where this has the potential to be the single greatest economically devastating effect on agriculture in New York state in my lifetime.”

Jacobs pointed to the fact that labor costs already represent 13.2% of New York farm expenses versus a national average of 9.5%. Farm closure rates are at 9%, also higher than the national average, and while the immediate impact will be felt primarily in farming communities in upstate New York.

Jacobs said the negative consequences of the bill becoming law would be felt all across the state: “When farming and agriculture are no longer viable in New York state, our state’s foods supply will be compromised, as will the industry’s supply chain and the role that agriculture plays in attracting jobs and investment. Passing this bill was a mistake that didn’t need to happen.”

State Sen. Rob Ortt said, “(Wednesday’s) passage of the Farmworker Labor Act is disappointing and further displays the disconnect between state Democrats and western New Yorkers. For months, I toured farms across Western New York and spoke about this legislation with hundreds of workers, employees and community residents. Employers and employees alike pleaded that this bill would destroy small family farms.

“With New York state farm closure rates already triple the national average, this legislation will grow the closure rate and devastate the No. 1 economic driver in New York.

“My chief concern when Democrats took over the entirety of state government was that upstate would be ignored. Incredibly, it has gone further than that and upstate is now being attacked by radical New York City regressives. Their willing accomplices include Democrats from the rest of the state, the Business Council, and the State Farm Bureau, who – sadly – should have all known better.”

The National Employment Law Project applauded leaders for passing the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

“While the farming workforce may have shifted from black workers to Latinx workers, the Jim Crow practice of denying them basic protections under the law has continued for too long,” said Christine Owens, NELP executive director. “Many farmworkers report working 60 to 80 hours a week doing grueling physical labor, and they deserve fair compensation for the long hours and the toll taken on their bodies, spirits, and family life. By establishing a floor for overtime pay and a wage board to explore the appropriate fair work week for these workers, New York is taking the first step in making the state’s agricultural system truly sustainable. We urge the wage board to act swiftly to adopt a plan for further lowering the overtime threshold so that farmworkers finally have the same overtime protections that all other blue-collar workers enjoy.”

“The image of the migratory farmworker is out of date,” said M. Patricia Smith, NELP senior counsel and former New York state labor commissioner. “Most farmworkers are settling in New York state with their families and children, contributing to the local economy, and working year-round in our state’s dairies and farms. Many report long tenures with their current employers. These are our neighbors and fellow community members, and they deserve the same basic rights and protections at work that the rest of us take for granted.”

••••••

Following these votes, Cuomo issued a statement wherein he said, "My administration has proudly fought for working men and women across the board, from raising the minimum wage to strengthening worker protections in nail salons and the home health care industry. We believe all workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect – period.

"Over the weekend, I issued a reformed farmworkers bill of rights which guarantees farmworkers will finally be granted basic rights to protect them from abusive and exploitive working conditions.  

"With the passage of this legislation, we will help ensure every farmworker receives the overtime pay and fair working conditions they deserve. The constitutional principles of equality, fairness and due process should apply to all of us. I am proud that, with the help of my daughters' years-long advocacy on this critical issue, we got it done."

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