ALBANY — New York farmers and their advocates are urging the Hochul administration to reject a recommendation that would gradually lower the overtime threshold for laborers in agriculture to 40 years a week, saying the industry has been slammed by skyrocketing costs.
“Competitiveness, pressures from increased costs, the shortage of labor — these are all things we’ve been talking about for the past couple of years, but it’s only been amplified by the pressures our entire economy is facing because of the pandemic,” said Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York State Farm Bureau.
“Our farmers’ costs have skyrocketed across the board — for fertilizer, for feed, for diesel fuel,” Ammerman told CNHI. “It’s only gotten more expensive to farm over this past year.”
The state Department of Labor, an agency controlled by Gov. Kathy Hochul, said the Farm Laborers Wage Board is slated to meet Sept. 6 to vote on the panel’s final report dealing with recommendations about the overtime threshold for farmworkers.
State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, appointed to her position by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and kept on by Hochul, is expected to announce a decision on whether to go forward with earlier recommendations to drop the threshold to 40 hours.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether a final decision will be made public in advance of the Nov. 8 election, which will decide the race between Hochul, a Democrat, and her GOP challenger, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-Long Island.
Two upstate lawmakers, Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, and Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, said Wednesday they believe Hochul should let New Yorkers know before the election where she stands on whether the overtime threshold should be lowered or remain at 60 hours.
Peter Brancato, the Department of Labor’s deputy commissioner for strategic communications, noted the wage board has held multiple public hearings on the issue, taking testimony from members of the public.
“Once the board’s final report is delivered to the commissioner, she will have 45 days to review the report and recommendations and announce her decision,” Brancato said in an email. “Pursuant to Labor Law Section 656, within five days of receipt, DOL (Department of Labor) will publish notice in at least 10 newspapers of general circulation in the state. Any objections to the report and recommendations can be sent to the commissioner within 15 days after such publication. Should the recommendations be adopted, this will then allow the department to undergo a rule making process, during which there will be a 60-day public comment period.”
Stec said the economic pressures faced by farmers have multiplied over the past year, a circumstance that should be taken into account by Reardon and the members of the wage board.
“So much of the farm expenses are driven by the cost of energy, and just look at what’s happened with the price of diesel fuel over the past 12 months,” Stec said. “It would be absolutely devastating to implement this as it’s been proposed.”
While advocates for farmworkers say it is only fair to have those laborers collect overtime for working more than 40 hours in a week, Tague said the net effect of lowering the overtime threshold will be reduced hours for those workers. A lower threshold will force farmers to keep costs from exploding by cutting the hours of their laborers, he reasoned.
Tague said he is recommending Hochul “get educated” on the issue by consulting with Lt. gov. Antonio Delgado, who as a congressman advocated for keeping the overtime threshold at 60 hours. Delgado has not addressed the issue since being recruited by Hochul during the election season to fill a vacancy created with the arrest and resignation of former Lt. gov. Brian Benjamin.
“Gov. Hochul mentioned last week she wants to reimagine farming,” Tague said. “This would be a good start.”
The Hochul administration has also been facing pressure from the New York Daily News, which has aligned itself with farmworkers, to support the recommendation made Jan. 28 to lower the threshold to 40 hours by 2032, in a series of steps, beginning with a drop to 56 hours in 2024.
In an editorial this week, the Daily News scolded Hochul for including Delgado but not farmworkers during a recent statewide “listening tour” focused on the future of farming.
“Is Hochul listening to (farmworkers’) voices?” the editorial asked. “Apparently not.”
The Labor Department released the schedule for the wage board a day after that editorial appeared.
The Farm Bureau, in trying to keep the threshold at 60 hours, has cited a report from Farm Credit East, which projected labor costs for farmers could be pushed up by 42% if the threshold is lowered, when phased-in hikes to the state minimum wages are factored in.
The Sept. 6 meeting will include Reardon, and wage board members Denis Hughes, former president of the New York State AFL-CIO, Buffalo Urban League President Brenda McDuffie, and David Fisher, the president of the New York Farm Bureau.
Ammerman said the Farm Bureau will continue to make its voice heard, though he acknowledged: “We don’t expect that recommendation to change with this report.”
Justin Wilcox, director of Upstate United, a group that advocates for an improved economic climate, said he believes the state should hold off on a final report on the overtime issue until the US Department of Agriculture completes an ongoing census of farms in the state.
He said there are fewer and fewer farms in operation in upstate New York every year, and revising the overtime rule will likely lead to more farms ceasing operation. “Agriculture is an incredibly important sector in the upstate region,” Wilcox said.