Farmworkers in New York deserve overtime pay
After decades of advocacy, New York stands at the brink of potentially passing the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill that would extend to the agricultural sector the right to organize and the right to overtime pay that most workers in other industries enjoy. Governor Cuomo has said he will sign the measure if it passes.
Democrats recently took leadership of the state senate and have a longstanding majority in the state assembly. Both chambers have an opportunity to take advantage of those majorities in a way that results in a historic improvement for the lives of workers who toil in difficult conditions for low pay in New York’s fields and dairies.
But victory is far from certain: plenty could happen between now and June 19, when New York’s legislative session ends. The New York Farm Bureau, unsurprisingly, is saying the bill “could dramatically change agriculture and hurt our rural economy.”
A new report from the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) shows how the bill will help farmworkers, be manageable for farm owners, and offer tangible benefits to local communities.
The bill will most obviously be a gain for farmworkers in New York. On average, it will increase weekly earnings by between $34 and $95 per week. That’s money that will also be spent in the local economy, helping boost local businesses (and adding to sales tax revenues).
Other states have enacted laws requiring that at least some overtime be paid to farmworkers after a certain number of hours. In California—the largest agricultural state by far with over $50 billion in cash receipts going to farms and ranches—the legislature and governor enacted a law in late 2016 that gradually phases in overtime pay for farmworkers beginning this year.
The law will eventually require that farmworkers be paid overtime after eight hours per day or 40 hours per week in 2022. While agribusiness has complained and fought against passage of the law for years, after five months of being the law in the state, there have not been any major negative impacts on business or production reported in California. If overtime for farmworkers can work in California, it can work in New York.
Farm owners have had some tough years, to be sure. But treating workers properly is a way of aligning interests so that legislators and New Yorkers can all feel good about supporting New York farms. The cost of providing overtime to farmworkers in New York is manageable. It would amount to 9 percent of net farm income if all of the costs came out of the bottom line. And, that’s not what would happen. In fact, the farm owners would see some benefits that would offset the costs, including decreased training and recruiting costs, and higher productivity.
A few people have worried that this would push up prices. Not so. In fact, FPI is not predicting that costs will go up at all: Farm owners say they can’t control prices, and we accept that idea in general, even if it may be an overstatement. But even if all of the costs were passed along to consumers, prices would increase just 2 percent.
And for those who do worry about price increases—even if there are no savings from increased productivity and even if the farm owners take no loss in profit—the increase in prices would be the equivalent of raising the price of apples at the farmer’s market from $1.50 to $1.53 per pound. Hardly a devastating difference.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about why farmworkers are currently exempted from the labor regulations that apply to other workers in the state. The history goes back to Jim Crow, and a time when most hired farmworkers were African American, as a recent report from the National Employment Law Project explains.
Today, the workers hired are also predominantly people of color, often immigrants, many are Latinos and Latinas, and some work without documentation. Increasing numbers are also temporary migrant “guest” workers in the H-2A visa program: in New York H-2A jobs certified went from 4,699 in 2013 up to 7,634 in 2018, accounting for about 14 percent of the 56,000 hired farm laborers in the state.
Why was it, again, that the rules that apply to other workers in New York State shouldn’t also apply to people who work on farms?
There are only two weeks left in New York’s legislative session and the living standards and labor standards of the state’s farmworkers hang in the balance. The legislature and governor should enact the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, so New Yorkers can all feel good about buying local and supporting New York’s farms.