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Friday, June 19, 2009

Committee Backs Farm Overtime

Story from the Post-Journal

ALBANY - What has already been a bad year for farmers could get worse if a bill requiring mandatory overtime for farmworkers is approved by the state Legislature.

On Tuesday, the state Senate's Labor Committee voted in favor of a bill that would require mandatory payment of overtime to farmworkers, require farm employers to allow at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week, provide for an eight-hour work day for farm laborers, makes unemployment insurance and workers compensation laws apply to farm workers, and requires farm worker injuries to be reported.

The bill has moved through committee in the Assembly, where a vote could be held this week. California is the only other state with such comprehensive labor rules for farms, according to the New York State Farm Bureau. Farmers say crops can only be picked during a short period of time, and having to pay overtime for the hours required during the harvest could make harvesting crops too expensive.

State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean and ranking member of the state Senate Agriculture Committee, on Tuesday blasted the Senate committee's vote, saying in a news release that the proposed changes will drive labor costs high enough to force farms out of business.

''The impact will be devastating,'' Sen. Young said. ''Thousands of farms statewide will go under, and countless jobs at farms, processing plants and farm-supply businesses will be lost."

"Crops will rot in the fields because farmers will have no money to harvest them, and dairy cows will be taken to the slaughterhouse because farmers won't be able to afford to milk them. Weeds will overrun our vineyards; orchards; and corn, alfalfa and vegetable fields," Sen. Young continued.


Opposition is coming largely from upstate legislators and organizations, including the Farm Bureau. Sponsors of the bill in both the Senate and Assembly are all from the New York City area, and the farm workers bill has received the editorial support of the New York Times and New York Daily News. Support in favor of the Assembly bill was recently pledged during an Albany rally hosted by Sheldon Silver, Assembly speaker. Those in favor of the bill say farm workers should receive the same protections given to other workers

''That farm workers should be denied unemployment insurance, denied workers compensation insurance, denied the right to bargain collectively, is a moral outrage,'' Silver said in a news release. ''For too long, this state has turned its back on our farm workers. This must be the year we make things right. I came here this afternoon to tell you that the Assembly Democrats stand with you.''

According to a Farm Bureau of New York fact sheet, farm workers already have access to unemployment and workers compensation insurance, and farm work agreements are already required by state law for all farm employees. If a farm employs 10 or more employees or reaches $20,000 in payroll in a quarter, the farmer must pay unemployment. Workers compensation is required once a farm has an annual payroll of $1,200. Farm work agreements and state overtime law already stipulate work to be performed, wages, work hours in a standard day and week, the pay period, benefits and time off.

The additional stipulations in the Senate bill would, according to the Farm Bureau, cost the farm families of New York more than $200 million per year. Jon Greenwood, a dairy farmer from St. Lawrence County, estimated the bill would cost him $6,000 a week in overtime costs alone. Farm officials are also concerned that Canada, Mexico and China, which are competition for state farmers, are not required to pay overtime, unemployment insurance or other state mandates.

"If passed, this bill would put our industry into a major tailspin and wreck the already struggling Upstate and Long Island economy," said Dean Norton, president of New York Farm Bureau and a dairy farmer from Batavia. "The tragic irony of the situation is that the sponsors are primarily from New York City or urban areas, and most of them have never been on a farm. If the bill's sponsors spent some time understanding the issue, talking to farmers and farm workers, they would know that the bill doesn't actually benefit the worker."


On Tuesday, Sen. Young said New York already has some of the strictest laws and standards in the country. She said farms are already subject to constant regulation and are regularly inspected by a variety of federal and state agencies. Adding mandatory overtime pay after eight hours, unemployment insurance and worker's compensation costs and collective bargaining rights will make farms unable to compete with other states and countries.

She said farmers are already receiving less for the food they produce and had to deal with cuts to state-funded agriculture programs totaling more than $11 million, and also had an emergency dairy relief program voted down.

Sen Young is calling on Senate Democrats, who took over the majority in the November election, to stop the bills from coming before the entire Senate.

''This year already has been an unmitigated disaster for farmers,'' Sen. Young said. ''They are getting dangerously low prices for the food they produce. The state budget piled on huge hikes in taxes, utility charges, and health insurance premium costs. Farming suffered severe cuts to state-funded agriculture programs to the tune of more than $11 million. Farmers had their emergency dairy relief program voted down. Now that the state has hammered agriculture, Albany may put countless farms out of business for good. There is only one way to stop this catastrophe, and that is making sure these bills never come to the Senate floor for a vote.''