Mark Gutman/Daily News File Photograph A farmer works a field south of La Grange off Route 246 in August 2020.

The three-person New York Farm Labor Wage Board voted Thursday to delay reducing the overtime threshold for farmworkers until at least November.

The board had considered lowering the overtime threshold from 60 to 40 hours per week.

Board member and New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher, in a prepared statement, said he supported board chairperson Brenda McDuffie’s position of delaying a decision.

“I had encouraged giving the process more time to fully evaluate what a lower threshold would mean for all involved, especially with such limited data from this challenging year,” Fisher said. “I’d like to thank my fellow wage board members for their time and professionalism and encourage the Department of Labor to continue to work with the farming community to do what is best for our farms and employees. We need each other for agricultural production and our rural economies to flourish.”

The Farm Bureau said the Wage Board made the right decision to delay consideration of lowering the overtime threshold and thanked its members who testified and submitted written comments.

“The care they have for the men and women who are essential workers on their farms is evident,” the Farm Bureau said. “We all value their work and want the very best for farm employees, that includes the ability to earn a good livelihood in the profession they have chosen.”

Maureen Torrey of Torrey Farms, Elba, echoed the Farm Bureau’s sentiment.

“No one cares about farm employees more than their employers,” Torrey said.

Torrey, whose farm employs about 120 people year round and an additional 200 to 300 seasonal employees was upset about the possible reduction to the overtime threshold and thought there was a good chance that the threshold would be reduced on the last day of 2020.

“It would hurt our employees more than it would hurt us,” she said.

Torrey Farms is a family farm specializing in fresh produce such as cucumbers, cabbage, green beans, peas, hay, alfalfa, potatoes and onion. It simultaneously operates a dairy farm and a trucking company. The farm, Torrey said, values longevity on the farm.

“I would say 95 percent of the people who work on our farm have worked for us for more than 10 years. Many of our seasonal workers are part of the VISA program. I would say 80 percent of these workers are approaching their 10th year of working for us,” said Torrey. “There are second- and third-generation workers.

“The reasons why we have such good employees is because they know they have lots of work here. Our culture is still based on trying to achieve the American dream,” Torrey said. “They want to be able to buy a home and provide for their families. They love the land. They love taking care of the land and taking care of the animals. That’s why they want to stay and prefer the 60-hour work week.”

Torrey noted farm employees have a choice of which state they want to work in. If employees know they will only receive 45 hours of work per week due to a reduction in the overtime threshold, they won’t stay in New York for work. She said she believed the workers would pack up their families and head to the next competitive wage state, so they can provide a better life for their families. In addition, if the overtime threshold is reduced in the future it would also affect the benefit packages her employees receive.

A joint statement issued by the Northeast Dairy Producers Association and the New York State Vegetable Growers Association said that it expects the wage board to realize that “information from multiple growing seasons is required to make a reasonable recommendation of the future of farming in New York State. Further we call upon expert resources from the Department of Agriculture & Markets and Cornell University to assist in the research and analysis necessary to render an informed recommendation.”

Table Rock Farm Inc. in Castile said in a statement: “…Farming is not a 40-hour a week job and our team reliably puts in the hours needed to take care of our cattle and our crops. Sometimes that means taking care of a difficult calving at 1 a.m. or working well past sunset to get in a hay harvest before an impending rain. It also means working holidays when others might be having a July 4 picnic or opening Christmas presents. To recognize that, we have always paid some form of overtime to our team.”

State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, whose district includes Orleans County, supported the delay in a statement, calling the board’s decision to delay “welcome news for farmers, farmworkers, and consumers across New York who have suffered greatly during this pandemic,”

“Recent legislative action from Albany Democrats has already added significant new burdens to ailing family farms across our state. The last thing these farms needed were new costs that would drive more of our agriculture industry out of business,” Ortt said in the statement.

State Assembly Minority Leader William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski, also issued a statement praising the decision, saying the threshold “threatened to over-regulate New York’s family farms out of existence.”

“Fortunately, the Wage Board acted prudently in its decision to preserve the current threshold for the time being. This is welcome news for farmers across New York — at least in the short term,” Barclay said. “Moving forward, we must keep in mind that the past year has been one of the most difficult for the agricultural industry, which was especially ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a time when we should be working to facilitate economic recovery and avoid putting unnecessary financial pressures onto the backs of New York’s farmers.”

State Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, called the Wage Board decision “sound and thoughtful,” but also promised to continue advocating to maintain the 60-hour threshold.

“The overwhelming consensus of those who testified, as well as the farmers I’ve spoken to around the state, is that this level is the minimum the industry can bear and still remain strong and viable,” said Borrello, whose district includes part of Livingston County.

The Farm Wage Board was appointed in 2020 to parse out one of the more controversial points of the New York Fair Labor Practices Act, which in 2019 instituted a broad array of new standards for farms. The law included a 60-hour threshold after which workers must receive overtime pay – time and a half of their hourly wage – as well as a mandatory day of rest and collective bargaining rights.

Farm bureaus and farms advocate for further study of the potential effects of a change, saying their feared lowering the threshold could cause the already struggling sector even more strife in trying to compete with neighboring states.

Last year, when the full bill was under consideration, labor groups pushed for the threshold to be set at the 40-hour limit of most other industries, but were met with significant push back from the agriculture sector. A compromise was later reached for the 2019 legislation that directed New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon to appoint a board to consider testimony and craft a set of recommendations on the threshold for overtime ay. The board held several hearings throughout the year, but was due to present its recommendations Thursday.

Two short meetings took place via the Zoom video conferencing platform on both Monday and Tuesday, during which the board members laid out their various arguments and staked positions on what they believed the recommendations should address.

Roughly 27,000 people were employed in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries in 2019, according to state Department of Labor data. That number has slowly increased each year since 2010.

The average wage for farm workers in this sector was about $38,224 in 2019, according to the department.

While those wages have risen in recent years, they still remain far below the median income, which is upwards of $68,000, according to statewide census data.

Fisher, the Farm Bureau president, had pressed the others to consider holding off on implementing the recommendations pending further study of the issue and the disruption already occurring in 2020 from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re in a pandemic,” Fisher said Monday. “It’s not a good time. It’s not great in the farm community, probably the highest rate of food insecurity in this state we have seen in a long time and I think all of those things need to be considered.”

Fisher’s foil on the board, former New York American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations President Denis Hughes, argues other industries already function with similar labor standards and the board could theoretically recommend instituting a 40-hour threshold over time.

“What we’re talking about here is trying to get to a compromise where, to the best of all our abilities, the farm industry, agriculture industry, has time to adjust to what the wage and hour requirements every other industry in the state are required to do,” Hughes said Monday. “We’re talking about time. We’re talking about an understanding.”

McDuffie, a Wage Board member and chief executive office of Buffalo Urban League, seemed to suggest she would support a staggered implementation of moving the threshold down toward 40 hours.

“I’m really hopeful that we can move towards some of the actions that we need to take as a board to get to a place that we will have a recommendation that allows us to move forward in a way,” McDuffie said Monday. ”One of the things I read about… some sort of staggering of the timing on getting to the place that we want to get to in terms of number of hours that a person works before the overtime rules go into effect.”

Ortt indicated that Republicans are not interested in making any more changes to the overtime rule.

“While (Thursday’s) announcement is positive, the reality is our farms are still under great strain. The Senate Republican Conference believes a vibrant agriculture industry is critical to the economic success of our state. We urge Leaders in Albany to reject any new burdens on our family farms and work with our Conference to advance solutions that will help grow this critical part of our state’s economy,” he wrote.

Barclay echoed Ortt’s statement.

“The Assembly Minority Conference understands the reality thousands of farmers are facing,” he said. “We remain committed to developing measures that make New York’s agricultural industry more competitive, and provide critical relief to the state’s farms and local economies.”

Includes reporting by Vaughn Golden and Tom Graser of Johnson Newspaper Corp.

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