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Farmers alarmed as NY looks at expanded overtime for workers

SCHUYLERVILLE, NEW YORK (AP) – The thousands of people paid to plant corn, pick apples and milk cows in New York often work long days, six days a week – and earn overtime only after 60 hours of labour.

New York took a big step on Friday toward lowering that threshold when a state board voted to recommend that a 40-hour overtime rule for farm workers be phased in over the next 10 years.

If the recommendation is approved by the state labour commissioner, New York would join California and Washington state in phasing in an overtime threshold common in other industries.

The vote by the three-member wage board capped a series of public hearings this month that heated up debate over compensation for agricultural workers in New York, many from Mexico, Guatemala and other foreign countries.

“We need a better quality of life,” veteran dairy worker Lazaro Alvarez said this week. He is among those who say the change is long overdue for an estimated 55,000 agricultural workers in New York.

But the prospect is alarming farmers. They warn the extra costs would wipe out marginal farms, hobble others and actually reduce workers’ earnings if farmers cap hours to manage expenses.

Workers in the Schoharie Valley harvest cauliflower at Shaul Farms in Fultonham, New York. PHOTO: AP

“While the industry overall may survive, many individual farms will not,” Chris Laughton of Farm Credit East, a lender for the agriculture industry in the Northeast, testified this month. At Welcome Stock Farm near Saratoga Springs, Bill Peck said overtime after 40 hours for the farm’s 18 full-time employees would cost him up to an extra USD12,000 a month.

Dairy farmers like Peck say they cannot simply raise prices to reflect added expenses, since wholesale milk prices are regulated.

“We aren’t going to be able to invest in a new tractor. We aren’t going to be able to invest in adding another barn,” said Peck. “That money is going to go just into payroll, so which is good for them in the short term, but long term the business can’t survive.”

Crop farmers, who grow vegetables and apples, said they would be particularly hard hit when extra seasonal labour is needed. They say higher overtime costs will make them less competitive with farms in other states.

Farm workers in New York didn’t qualify for overtime pay at all until 2020, when the state changed the law to mandate extra pay for workers who exceeded 60 hours a week. The new law also instructed the wage board to consider whether to recommend a lower threshold.

The board voted on Friday to lower the farm threshold by four hours every other year, starting with overtime after 56 hours on or after January 1, 2024.

Farmworkers would be able to earn overtime after 40 hours in 2032 under the recommendation. The board still needs to make a formal recommendation to Governor Kathy Hochul’s labour commissioner, who can accept, reject or modify them.

“We did something very historical today,” said board chairperson Brenda McDuffie.

The recommendations were approved in a series of 2-1 votes, with member David Fisher, representing the New York Farm Bureau, opposing them.

Average hourly wages for agricultural workers in the region last year were USD16.16, according to federal figures, though some earn the minimum wage of USD13.20.

Alvarez, 63, of Mexico City, said overtime after 40 hours would reduce stress for workers like himself and give them a better quality of life.

“I will be able to have checkups at the doctor, I will be able to buy personal items. I will have time for me,” Alvarez said in Spanish.

California has already been lowering farm overtime levels in phases over several years. Larger farms in California had to begin providing overtime after 40 hours starting this year. Farms with 25 or fewer employees will hit the 40-hour mark in 2025.