Farmworkers in New York are one step closer to receiving overtime pay after 40 hours of work per week following a state Department of Labor board’s recommendation that the current 60-hour threshold be lowered over the next decade.
In a 2-1 vote, the Farm Laborers Wage Board recently recommended that the overtime threshold be reduced by four hours every other year starting in 2024, bringing the overtime threshold to 40 hours by 2032. Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon must approve the recommendation before it goes into effect.
President of the New York Farm Bureau, David Fisher, was the sole vote in opposition to the recommendation. Denis Hughes, former president of the New York State AFL-CIO, and Brenda McDuffie, former president of the Buffalo Urban League who serves as chair of the Farm Laborers Wage Board, voted in favor.
In 2019, New York passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which allowed farm laborers to receive overtime pay when they work more than 60 hours per week beginning in 2020. The law also required the labor commissioner to convene a farm laborers wage board to make recommendations about overtime work and whether the 60-hour threshold could be lowered.
After a series of public hearings, the board recommended in December 2020 that the threshold stay at 60 hours for at least a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the "unprecedented challenges impacting both the agriculture industry and global economy."
Last month, the board was asked to hear more public testimony and reevaluate its recommendation. After nearly 12 hours of testimony over the past several weeks, the Farm Laborers Wage Board recommended the threshold be dropped to 40 hours by 2032.
New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in a statement that the wage board made the right decision in recommending a phased-in overtime plan, something the federation of unions has fought for 20 years to achieve.
"We have said from the very beginning that this is an achievable goal," Cilento said. "Now, we call on the wage board to promptly issue its report and for the commissioner of labor to adopt the recommendation and report so that farmworkers will finally be fairly compensated for the essential and often physically grueling work they do."
The New York Civil Liberties Union also applauded the decision and urged Reardon to accept the recommendation.
"New York's agriculture industry must no longer depend on the continued exploitation of farmworkers," NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "The NYCLU will continue to stand with farmworkers in the fight for equal workplace protections, fair compensation, and basic rights across New York State."
Farmers, however, are concerned that a 40-hour overtime threshold could spell trouble for New York's agriculture industry. Fisher said in a statement the decision "was made with little deliberation or reflection of the testimony."
"I would have hoped my fellow board members would have considered more of the impacts that this will have on agriculture," he said.
Grow NY Farms, a coalition of farmers and trade groups representing agricultural interests, said in a statement that 70% of the testimony presented to the board was made by farmers and farmworkers who wanted to keep the overtime threshold at 60 hours, calling the wage board's recommendation "disingenuous and irresponsible."
A study by economists at Cornell University found that two-thirds of dairy farms interviewed would move out of milk production or direct future dairy investment to other states if a 40-hour overtime threshold were implemented, and half of fruit and vegetable farms said they would shrink their business or exit the industry altogether. Additionally, 72% of temporary agricultural workers said they would be less likely to do their current job if hours were capped at 40 hours per week, and 70% said they would consider going to another state.
Grow NY Farms said that since the farm laborers law went into effect in 2020, New York has already seen farmworkers leave the state for more hours of work and farm production shift to less labor-intensive crops. These effects, the coalition said, would be exacerbated by the board's recommendation.
"Changing the overtime threshold to 40 hours a week for farmworkers in New York means that these workers will be limited to 40 hours, due to simple farm economics," Grow NY Farms said. "This is not a win for farmworkers that self-proclaimed worker advocates will claim."
The New York Farm Bureau said it is asking Gov. Kathy Hochul to find an alternative to the wage board's recommendation.
"So much is at stake," Fisher said. "This is a priority issue for New York Farm Bureau and all of agriculture."
The New York Department of Labor said Reardon will have 45 days after she receives the board's official report to review the recommendations and announce her decision.