New Labor Bill Could Change the Shape of East End Farming

A proposed New York State bill that would grant farm workers overtime pay and the ability to engage in collective bargaining is raising the hackles of East End farmers, who say it could severely damage the agriculture industry here.

But labor advocates throughout the state see the bill as an attempt at long-overdue restorative justice in an industry that has long relied on the low-paid work of immigrants and people of color.

The bill would require farm owners to pay time-and-a-half to workers once they reach a threshold of 8 hours of work per day or 40 hours per week, would allow farm workers to engage in collective bargaining, and would require that farm workers are made eligible for unemployment benefits and workers’ compensation.

Farm workers have long been excluded from labor laws governing overtime pay, both in New York and around the country. California recently passed a farm labor law that phases in overtime pay above 8 hours a day or 40 hours per week by the year 2022. Farms in California with 25 or fewer employees are given a three-year extension on the phase-in.

Members of the New York State Legislature held a public hearing on the bill, titled the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, on April 26 at the Suffolk County Legislature headquarters in Smithtown. East End farmers turned out in droves, most likely helped along by the fact that it was pouring rain and they were unable to take advantage of the day to ready their fields for planting spring crops.

The Smithtown hearing was the only one held on Long Island — two other hearings include one held on April 25 at SUNY Morrisville and another one is planned for Thursday, May 2 at SUNY Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake.

The bill is sponsored by Democratic State Senator Jessica Ramos of Queens. Iterations of this bill have been introduced before, but had stalled in the State Senate, where it has a greater chance of passage this year due to a new Democratic majority.

“In New York, there is a Jim Crow-era law still on our books that denies human beings— mostly black and Latino taxpaying New Yorkers— parity with nearly every other worker in this state,” said Ms. Ramos, who chairs the Senate Labor Committee. Ms. Ramos said at the hearing that, even though she is a city girl, she is the “granddaughter, niece and cousin” of farm workers and she does understand the industry.

North Fork farmers and members of the Long Island Farm Bureau told members of the Southold Town Board at its April 23 work session that, if enacted, the bill will have a devastating effect on farms here.

“It would put farming in general at a disadvantage with neighboring states,” Farm Bureau President Karl Novak, a Laurel nursery owner, told the town board. “I’m sure we will see some people say ‘enough. I can’t be profitable.’”

“Proponents keep throwing out that this is a Jim Crow-era law. It’s an insinuation I kind of find offensive,” Mr. Novak told the Southold Town Board.

“They say farmers are not required to pay unemployment or workmen’s comp disability insurance, which is all not true,” he added. “There is a threshold where they do not have to pay these things, but the vast majority of employers pay into the fund. This is a push based on misinformation and alternative facts.”

“The people proposing this bill really don’t care. I don’t think they understand agriculture,” he added. “They don’t realize where their food comes from. They don’t realize what’s going to happen when there is a shortage of food. Their food comes from Stop & Shop and Walmart and they have no idea where their food actually comes from. It’s playing to their political base and that’s all they care about.”

Mr. Novak said Farm Credit East has done a study that shows the bill “would reduce net farm income by a minimum of 23 percent.”

At the April 26 hearing in Smithtown, members of the State Senate heard nearly four hours of testimony from labor advocates and farmers, whose views on the issue couldn’t have been more divergent.

Translator Denise Rivera with farm worker Juan Antonio Zungia at the April 26 public hearing.

Only one farm worker spoke. It is not unusual for immigrant laborers to hesitate to publicly share their concerns about their working conditions with the government.

Juan Antonio Zungia, who declined to name his employer, told the state senators, through a translator, that he is retiring after working in the horticultural industry on Long Island since 2006. He said he does not know how he will support himself now.

The state senators, speaking in Spanish, peppered Mr. Zungia with questions about his earnings and work conditions — he answered that he earned $29,000 in 2018, working sometimes as many as 70 hours per week.

“These long hours are needed to tend to the agricultural needs that come up,” he said. “We collaborate with the bosses who are in charge of these companies. We have to continue to collaborate with them to make sure the work gets done. It’s difficult because the amount of work they need to take care of the agricultural fields takes time away from spending with our families.”

He said that farm work often begins as early as 6 a.m., and ends around 7 or 8 p.m., and that women who work on farms have to drop their children off with babysitters before school in order to get to work at dawn.

“This causes mothers to spend little time with their families and children,” he said. “I hope my works will point out the benefits of this law for future agricultural workers who would like to pursue this job.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith’s chief of staff, John Marafino, read a letter from Ms. Jens-Smith stating that the bill “could have long-term disastrous effects to our struggling farmers in Riverhaed.”

Patrick Young, an attorney with the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood, said he’s been advocating unsuccessfully for protections for farm workers for two decades. He chastised Ms. Jens-Smith’s comments, saying they “didn’t even mention farm workers.”

“Over the last two years, increasingly, immigrants have gone underground rather than seek protection,” he said. “Under these types of circumstances, farmers might start to exploit farm workers in ways we haven’t seen in the past. We would ask that this legislation be passed, and we certainly believe it should be done in consultation with farm owners. It’s important that the rights of these workers be protected at a time when they’re at their most vulnerable.”

Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate said she’s worked for 22 years to help farm workers and farm owners resolve labor issues.

Sister Margaret said she believes lawmakers should consider three P’s when crafting the bill: making sure the playing field is level for everyone, providing protection from abuse, and remembering that production is much better when everyone is able to benefit.

“I think it’s possible to be able to look at this farm bill and have farm owners and farm workers come up with an intelligent way to make farming the great industry it is,” she said. “People are leaving the industry because they can do better outside of it, but within the farming industry is where they find their heart.”

Jennifer Gil-Vinueza, a paralegal with the Latina women’s advocacy and empowerment group SEPA Mujer, shared a story from one of the group’s members, a migrant worker who works in a greenhouse 55 hours per week.

She said the woman is living in an abusive situation and does not earn enough to move out and live on her own.

“Now her trauma is being inflicted on her children,” she said. “And her employer threatens her with her job when she has to take her kids to the doctor. Why is her life, labor and dignity disposable? This is just the beginning of a long fight for justice.”

Nearly all of the farm owners who spoke were from the East End, and they shared their struggles with the weather, market factors, the high cost of living on the East End and labor laws that have left them wondering if they should continue to on as farmers.

“It’s all about price. It ends with the buyer’s bottom line,” said Philip Schmitt of Philip A. Schmitt & Sons Farms in Riverhead. “I don’t know if we’re going to survive the minimum wage increase. Everybody up the scale wants to make a little more money, and I think they deserve it.”

“We’re really under duress,” he added. “We compete with every other state and country that has lesser standards.”

Kareem Massoud, the winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards, said that, due to the current phase-in of minimum wage increases, “my payroll increases the last two years are unprecedented.”

“We’re partners with mother nature, and unfortunately, she is the senior partner,” he added. “Farm work is inherently risky.”

He added that, after heavy rain, farm employees must wait until just the right moment to harvest the grapes after they are no longer wet but before they undergo explosive growth from the rain, necessitating some very long hours.

“Mother nature is not interested in overtime, however, that is exactly what is required,” he said. “When the rain stops, you find yourself doing double the work. You play the hand that was dealt to you by mother nature.”

Jennifer Halsey-Dupree, co-owner of The Milk Pail fruit farm in Water Mill, said she doesn’t foresee consumers being willing to pay any more for her produce.

She said she crunched the numbers on what the labor bill would mean for her farm, and found that her payroll costs would increase 26 percent in the first year. Her biggest concern, she said, was having to pay overtime. She added that many of her employees are seasonal farm workers with H2A visas, who receive free housing, and are only allowed to work for the employers who sponsor their visa application. 

State senators asked if it would help if overtime pay kicked in at 60 hours per week.

“Yes, maybe we could handle it, but our employees are ultimately the ones who will lose out,” she said. “That money has to come from somewhere else.”

“I understand that some individuals treat people terribly,” she added. “That is horrendous. Not on my farm, and not on any of these farms.”

Alexander Balsam of Balsam Farms in Amagansett is in his 17th year in business, and is farming about 100 acres. He said that, as the son of social studies teachers, he appreciates what labor movements have done for this country. He said that workers on his farm are already covered for worker’s compensation and unemployment.

“There are years I don’t put money in my pocket, but the employees on my farm still got raises,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition from other jobs, but we treat our employees well.” 

Amanda Merrow of Amber Waves Farms, also in Amagansett, said her business spent $25,000 on leases to house its workers in the notoriously high-priced Hamptons real estate market in 2018, and she thinks they will need to spend closer to $40,000 on housing this year.

“Agricultural work is physically, emotionally and mentally hard,” she said. “Our employees are driven by the challenges. It’s certainly not for everyone. There are extreme seasonal swings of intensity, and it’s inherently risky. We may walk away empty-handed after a challenging season, which we did last year.”

At its April 23 work session, members of the Southold Town Board agreed to draft a letter in opposition to the bill.

“It’s going to have a devastating impact on farm workers,” said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell. “If farms aren’t continuing to operate, there is no work, period.”

“There is definitely a lot at stake with this,” agreed Town Councilman Bill Ruland. “I still operate a farm that’s been in my family for 303 years, but I’m near the end. I’m glad I don’t have to hire other people. My machines are my people. This is going to hasten the exit of many farmers.”

Mr. Ruland added that he’s offended that the public hearing is being held in Smithtown, smack dab in the middle of planting season, when a sunny day could demand a farmer tend to his fields.

“The hearing belongs in the county seat (Riverhead) because that is where the agriculture is,” he said.

Chris Baiz, the owner of Old Field Vineyard and chairman of Southold Town’s agricultural advisory committee, told the town board that, if the law went into effect, farmers, who desperately need more workers, will likely cut back employees’ hours to avoid paying overtime. If that happens, he said, many workers will go to neighboring states where they can work more hours.

“The fellows here in our industry don’t want to work just eight hours a day,” he said. “They’re going to go somewhere else where they can work ten.”

He added that many farm workers here on temporary agricultural worker visas are sending home money that is enabling three or four of their relatives to stay in their native countries.

Agricultural advisory committee member and Mattituck farmer Doug Cooper said most local farmers pay wages in excess of $15 per hour, and are also required to provide housing, which is inspected by the U.S. Department of Labor, to temporary agricultural workers who have H2A visas.

“If you’re gonna be hit by overtime, he’s going to find work somewhere else and I’m gonna need more help,” he said. “It’s gonna drive mechanization more and more.”

“Historians are going to write about this and some future generation is going to read about what went wrong,” said Mr. Ruland.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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