WESTMORELAND — As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushes for legislation that would allow farmworkers to unionize, one local grower said the measure would be a detriment to farmers and their employees.
“I don’t know any farmers who would support this,” said County Legislator George E. Joseph, R-10, Westmoreland, and owner of North Star Orchards on Route 233, adding that the legislation is another example of, “good intentions, with the unintended consequence.”
The bill, known as the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, would repeal an 80-year-old state law that prohibits farmworkers from organizing to seek better wages or conditions. It would also guarantee disability benefits and overtime pay.
“Our governor believes farm workers should never be treated as second-class citizens,” Labor Commission Roberta Reardon told a group of a few dozen farmworkers, relatives and labor advocates. “Gov. Cuomo looks forward to working with the Legislature to get this important bill passed.”
Supporters said farmworkers argue they deserve the same labor rights as workers in other industries. But farm owners say the act would lead to higher labor costs, put the state’s agricultural industry at a competitive disadvantage and, possibly, force some smaller family farms to close.
“I think most people in Albany and downstate are totally unaware of how a farm operates and how relished and well-treated the employees that are going to do the work that is required, are treated,” said Joseph. “There’s a relationship — they conceive it’s like a factory. There’s always an interactive relationship with employees on a farm and because of that, their needs are acutely cared for — the best any employer can do.”
As for the provision for overtime, Joseph questions how those hours would be calculated in the farming industry.
Farming and hours — “It’s just the nature of it,” he said. “When the hay is ready and the farmers who cut hay have to get it in, whether they’re working 8 hours or 12, they have to get it in, especially with pending weather events. I think the law is pushing for overtime over 8 hours a day or over 40 hours a week. But how can you do that when you’re weather-related?”
Because of the costs associated with the bill — overtime pay and other benefits — Joseph said it would force most farmers to conduct their business without additional labor, which as a result, would cut jobs.
“Look, who do unions protect? It’s people who don’t quite meet expectations,” he said. “It’s going to be to the detriment of agriculture. I’m already hearing from growers that, ‘I’ll put corn and soybeans in, because I don’t need the labor’” to cultivate it. “’It will be mechanically harvested, and then I don’t need the people.’”
Joseph said farmworkers, particularly H2As or temporary agriculture workers, know coming into a job what hours need to be invested and actually want to work as many hours as possible. But if farmers/employers are forced to pay overtime, then they will just hire more employees to complete the job, because it would be more cost-effective. In return, however, the temporary workers would receive less pay.
“Many of my friends are apple growers, and they (larger operations) may have 25 laborers, and they get the same people to come back every year,” the legislator said. Under federal contract “they have to house them, pay them above minimum wage, provide them with benefits or money toward benefits. But there’s a relationship there, and the people come in knowing that they’re coming in and working only three months or so.”
With the new legislation, “Now they’re (farmers) are being told you can only allow the laborers to work 40 hours and put down a number,” he continued. “So now instead of 10 workers, I’m going to get 14...because it’s just cheaper to get more employees. But these people want to come in and work as much as they can, because it’s more money to send back to their families.”
As technology grows and develops, it affects all industries, including farming, Joseph warned. Years ago, migrant workers would come on the farm to pick peas and beans, but labor laws over the years have changed many operations into micronization (a focus on mechanical means) — using machines to complete the jobs once performed by people. So as machines are already replacing people, legislation such as this, would further decrease the number of workers retained on farms, he explained.
“It’s all about efficiency — it all comes out in a package and that’s where we’re heading,” Joseph said. “...We put in 50,000 tulips (last year)...and in buying the bulbs, I was talking to someone who owns a business in Holland, and it’s been a family thing. He told me, ‘We used to have in our plan 300 workers sorting bulbs, but today we have 30 because now we have sorting machines. It cost us millions of dollars to do it, but we just replaced the labor.’”
He said, “In Oneida County, there’s a farm that has robots for milking and it’s all automated. The things machines can do now are incredible. Cows will be milked more frequently, and the machine gives a whole report on the cow — it’s a data collector besides.”
So when it comes to growing technology, “We’re heading there,” Joseph said.