Maintaining farm labor overtime thresholds

Maintaining farm labor overtime thresholds
Nov 23, 2020

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Anything under 60 hours could affect the industry negatively, farm groups say

By Diego Flammini
Staff Writer
Farms.com

A group of farm organizations are hoping overtime regulations for farmworkers don’t change.

More than 20 industry groups from New York State are asking Governor Cuomo to maintain the 60-hour overtime threshold.

“Please know that if the overtime threshold for New York farm workers is lowered to a level below 60 hours per week, the face of New York agriculture will be irreparably altered and we will no longer remain economically competitive in the crops and commodities that require a labor force,” the groups said in a Nov. 23 letter.

Letter signatories include the New York Farm Bureau, Dairy Farmers of America and the New York Corn and Soybean Growers Association.

Under the Farm Laborers Fair Practices Act, which the governor signed into law in 2019, requires farm employers to pay employees overtime pay of 1.5 times their hourly wage for any work over 60 hours or work done on designated days off.

As part of the law, Governor Cuomo mandated the state labor commissioner assemble a wage board to discuss industry issues including lowering the overtime requirement.

The board could lower the threshold to 40 hours to bring agriculture in line with other industries.

Some employers already have rules in place using the 60-hour mark.

“We have a policy in place that nobody works more than 60 hours unless approved by me,” Jim Bittner, a tree fruit producer from Niagara County, told Farms.com. “I think during sweet cherry harvest we had some people work more than 60 hours and it was justifiable, but not many of our workers do.”

If the overtime mark drops from 60 hours to 40 hours per week, those changes could result in fewer jobs, less crops and more expenses, Bittner said.

“We’re going to have to make decisions on whether to cut back hours,” he said. “If we do that, we have to decide if we’re going to hire more people. If we’re going to hire more people then that requires more housing and more transportation.

“We already decided to remove around 150 acres from production and take out a two-year-old orchard because it just wasn’t worth the investment.”

An apple orchard can cost up to $20,000 per acre when inputs and labor are factored in, Bittner added.

In addition, decreasing the overtime threshold makes New York farmers less competitive than farmers in other states.

In Pennsylvania, for example, farm workers are exempt from state overtime law.

An increase in labor costs would make it difficult to market crops, Bittner said.

“I have to compete with growers from different states every day,” he said. “If they have a leg up on me, then we just can’t do it. We’re not going to stick our neck out there and make investments. These rules could put me out of business.”

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