GHENT—The $220-billion state budget passed by the legislature April 9 triples the state’s commitment to its agriculture industry compared to the budget for the last fiscal year.
The farm owner advocacy groups New York Farm Bureau and Grow NY Farms praised the 2022-23 budget, which includes increased farm employer tax credits up to 118% of the cost for overtime hours worked. The budget also doubles tax credits to $1,200 per worker for farm employee retention. The groups’ official statements called the tax credits “unprecedented.”
But not everybody believes that government has done all it could. One thing still not clear is whether Governor Kathy Hochul will adopt a change sought by farmworker advocates. They want to see the adoption of a recommendation from the Farm Laborers Wage Board, passed in January by a 2-1 vote, which calls for a reduction in the threshold for overtime farmwork from the current 60 hours per week to 40 hours. The recommendation would be phased in over a 10-year period starting in 2024.
“There is no time-frame for the governor to act,” said Amy Abbati, a spokesperson for Binghamton area Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo (D-123rd), chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee. Ms. Abbati added that the inclusion of overtime tax credits for farmers is “indicative” of how the governor leans on the issue.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has issued a statement that reads in part, “. . . with Governor Hochul’s dollar-for-dollar refundable tax credit, there is no reason that the overtime threshold cannot be lowered to 40 hours in 2024.” The NYCLU filed a lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of farmworker Crispin Hernandez, Workers Justice Center of NY and Workers Center of Central NY. There has been an 80-year campaign by a diverse coalition of religious, rural, immigration, Latino, union organizations and the NYCLU for farmworkers to benefit from standards enjoyed by workers in other occupations.
‘It is not a way to get more money. It’s about wage protection.’
Senior Attorney Lisa Zucker
NYCivil Liberties Union
There are no figures on how much overtime labor would cost because those hours currently are not tracked. But Ms. Abbati said that there is “speculation the amount would be $240 million over a 4-year period.”
Opponents of a lower overtime threshold claim the changes will make New York farmers less competitive causing some to exit the industry and will not result in higher wages for farmworkers. According to the Mint Salary website, run by the Intuit financial services company, farm worker pay in Columbia County averages $22,500 annually, which lags behind the statewide average salary of $39,137.
In an interview with The Columbia Paper, Farm Bureau Vice President Eric Ooms, a dairy farmer in Kinderhook, identified vegetable and fruit growers and dairies as most likely to be impacted by overtime changes. He estimated that labor accounts for 50-60% of costs for vegetable and fruit growers and 20% for dairies. Mr. Ooms said that farms likely would adopt Walmart and Amazon business models for entry level/minimum skill jobs in order to avoid overtime.
As an example Mr. Ooms cited his family’s 70-year old dairy, which has a non-family workforce of four. He said that only one of the four is overtime eligible and that worker could be reclassified as management “to avoid overtime.”
Lisa Zucker, NYCLU senior attorney for legislative affairs/policy, disputed the assumption that overtime is about wage enhancement. “It is not a way to get more money. It’s about wage protection,” she said. Ms. Zucker explained that the historic purpose of overtime was an “incentive to not overwork the human body” calling farm work “highly physical and repetitive.”
Both Ms. Zucker and Mr. Ooms noted the federal H2A program, which allows foreign nationals to work on U.S. farms, as another stress factor on labor costs. Columbia County’s hourly minimum wage for farm workers is $12.50 but H2A workers receive $14-plus and their wage is “guaranteed.”
Neither Mr. Ooms nor Ms. Zucker thinks a lower overtime threshold will lead to an exit of farmers. “Farm owners adjust. They always do,” she said. Ms. Zucker cited pesticide restrictions and minimum wage laws as examples.
Mr. Ooms cited his own operation. “Instead of milking more cows, [we] added robotic milking machines, which “equal one person.” He, also, said that his farm would grow more corn, a less labor-intensive crop. He added that the greater current threats to farmers are escalating costs for seed, fuel and fertilizer, not overtime hours.