County lawmakers opposition to farm workers rights bills ripens

David Hill
Staff writer
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Posted 5/13/19

Oneida County lawmakers are considering a resolution opposing state legislation extending labor protections including overtime, a full day off each week and the right to form unions to farm workers. …

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County lawmakers opposition to farm workers rights bills ripens

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Oneida County lawmakers are considering a resolution opposing state legislation extending labor protections including overtime, a full day off each week and the right to form unions to farm workers.

A petition against two state bills together called the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act has already been signed by 13 of the 23 members of the Board of Legislators. It is due for consideration by the full board at its June meeting.

The petition would state the county legislative body opposes Senate bill 2837 and Assembly bill 2750, and calls on state lawmakers representing the county state their position on it.

The bills have similar aims. Their main provisions would grant farm workers collective bargaining rights, guarantee 24 consecutive hours of rest each week, establish an eight-hour work with time-and-a-half overtime pay, make farm workers eligible for worker’s compensation benefits, require injuries be reported to employers, and apply sanitary rules to migrant work camps regardless of the number of occupants.

The legislation would would grant farm workers the basic labor rights long enjoyed by other public and private  employees in New York, according to the justification statement in the Assembly bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, D-37th Dist. of Queens. Nolan and other advocates note that farm workers are excluded in most cases from federal and state labor laws requiring such protections, particularly the Depression-era Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates overtime pay for hourly workers.

“Farmworkers frequently suffer physical injuries and illnesses in the course of their employment, often beyond that suffered by workers in other industries. It is unjust that the labor protections provided to other workers in New York such as a day of rest overtime pay, disability insurance, unemployment benefits and collective bargaining have been denied to farmworkers for decades.”

Both versions are before the respective labor committees.

Resolution opposes proposed legislation

The Oneida County opposition measure is led by legislator Keith Schiebel, Dist. 1 of Vernon, Verona and Sherrill, who is on the state Association of Counties Agriculture Committee and a former agriculture educator.

Boards in Lewis and Jefferson counties have passed similar resolutions.

The resolution before county lawmakers states “Oneida County’s farmers are respectful and appreciative of their employees,” but also says a strike could destroy an entire year of crops, render food inedible and, according to lender Farm Credit East would raise labor costs on state farms $300 milion and reduce net farm income more than 23 percent.

The resolution further notes that while New York farmers work locally, they sell into a national and global market.

Unique nature of work, weather cited

Schiebel and other opponents of the state legislation say agriculture needs exemptions from some labor laws because of its unique weather-dependent nature. Farmers are more vulnerable than those in many other industries because crops must be harvested at a certain time and often only in certain weather.

“If I have a crop that’s ready for harvest and the weather’s nice, I have to harvest it at this time rather than at the end of the day at 5 o’clock, ‘Well, I’ll wait till tomorrow,’” Schiebel said. “If the weather’s not favorable tomorrow it might be several days or weeks before you can get back to that crop. And by that point the crop could be ruined to the point it’s not of value anymore.”

Even dairy farms, which milk cows around the clock and in all weather, are often dependent on raising feed crops whose harvest is weather-dependent, Schiebel said.

Rome-area lawmakers said they do not support the bills in their present forms but are sensitive to the issue. “While I am sensitive to the consideration of additional benefits such as workers’ compensation and a day of rest for farmworkers, I am concerned that this legislation, as presented, will have detrimental and damaging effects on the viability of farms and related businesses throughout the state,” said state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-47, Rome.

Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon does not support the Assembly bill in its present form, though she does appreciate the efforts to improve safety, she said in a statement.

“Local farmers and farm workers that I have spoken with are concerned about the forced regulation of shorter work days and work weeks,” Buttenschon said. “Our limited growing season is so weather-dependent, that a good stretch of nice weather means there is more work to be done. The regulation of shorter work days could hinder crop production, which would not only affect the farmer and workers, but also the community that enjoys the products produced by the farm.”

Equal rights sought, proponents say

Advocates of the state legislation counter that agriculture is seldom all that different from other industries. Dairy farms, for instance, milk every day in all weather and big greenhouses on Long Island operate in all weather, noted Jose Chapa of the Justice for Farmworkers Legislative Campaign, which is affiliated with the Rural and Migrant Ministry, which advocates for migrant workers. He said the farmworker exemption in federal law was created when most farm workers were African-American, a compromise then-President Franklin Roosevelt made with members of Congress to get the law adopted.

The organization says only about 30 percent of New York farms hire or contract for paid labor, and that research shows farm work tpically comes to 40 to 60 hours a week so that the applicability of overtiem will be limited.

“Securing farmworkers their equal rights in a time when farmers are experiencing a boon will strengthen the work force and secure the future of New York’s agricultural industry,” the campaign says in a fact sheet on the legislation.

Rebecca Fuentes, lead organizer at the Workers Center of Central New York in Syracuse, which has advocated for years for farm workers and documented unsafe conditions particularly on certain dairy farms, said the exemptions from labor laws for farms has contributed to an imbalance of power that has contributed to abuse of workers. Undocumented migrant workers are especially vulnerable because of the threat of deportation and because farms often provide their housing, but U.S. citizen workers would benefit too by having farm work become more like what Americans typically expect of jobs, Fuentes said.

Farms of fewer than 11 employees are exempt from federal occupational-safety enforcement, she noted. “Seventy-two hours (a week) is the norm,” she said. “The industry got used to it.”

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