New Labor Bill Worries East End Farmers

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 local farmers, who say it could severely damage the agriculture industry here.

Members of the New York State Legislature are holding a public hearing on the bill, titled the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, this Friday, April 26 from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Suffolk County Legislature headquarters at 725 Veterans Memorial Highway in Smithtown.

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.

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.'”

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.

“It’s very important that we hear from farmers and farm workers as we weigh this legislation and make sure that we are addressing the concerns and needs of all of those who will be affected,” said State Senator Jennifer Metzger, Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture Chair, in a statement.

Friday’s hearing will be the only one on Long Island — two other hearings are planned today at SUNY Morrisville and on Thursday, May 2 at SUNY Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake.

“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, in a statement.

“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.”

He was met with a receptive audience from the town board, which agreed to draft a letter in opposition to the bill to be shared at Friday’s public hearing.

“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 may 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.

For more details regarding the public hearing, call 631.360.3356.

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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