GHENT – Whether to lower the overtime threshold for New York State farmworkers, from 60 to 40 hours, is before the state Department of Labor. Commissioner Roberta Reardon has until October 21 to act on the recommendations approved by the Farm Laborers Wage Board (FLWB), in a 2-1 vote, in January of this year.
The Columbia County Board of Supervisors’ Finance Committee weighed in on the issue, at its monthly meeting September 14, voting in favor of Resolution 395-2022 to oppose the Wage Board’s recommendation for a lower OT threshold. Committee member Michael Chameides was the lone vote opposing the resolution. An effort to bring the resolution before the full County Board of Supervisors, later that evening, was tabled.
On Wednesday, September 7, representatives of 8 farmworkers’ advocacy groups held a Zoom press conference to urge the commissioner to act before the October deadline. The FLWB calls for phasing in the lower threshold over 10 years starting in 2024. The overtime (OT) threshold would be reduced by four hours every other year. Governor Kathy Hochul has pledged to reimburse farmers for their OT expenses.
Some advocates argue that the lower OT threshold is a Civil Rights issue, noting that the majority of the state’s farmworkers are non-white and that farm laborer is the only occupation exempt from OT pay after 40 hours.
Other advocates see the OT threshold as a health issue, describing farm labor as “painful and debilitating compounded by doing this work day after day.” Viewing the issue in strictly economic terms, advocates argue that a lower OT threshold will make New York more competitive at recruiting farmworkers and will improve the productivity of farm operations.
The Farm Bureau, an advocacy group for farm owners, strongly disagrees with that economic assessment and argues that more farms, especially small family operations, will go out of business. The Wage Board guidelines exempt family members from the OT threshold.
Opponents to the lower threshold, also call it a misguided effort to increase worker weekly pay that will backfire because farm owners likely will hire more workers to avoid overtime, or figure out something else.
The Farm Bureau’s vice president’s family has operated a dairy in Kinderhook for 70 years. In a May interview with The Columbia Paper, Vice President Eric Ooms said he has four, non-family employees and that only one would be overtime eligible. However Mr. Ooms said that employee could be promoted to a manager position to avoid the OT requirements.
Mr. Ooms also identified fruit, vegetable and dairy farms as the operations must likely to be impacted by new OT guidelines as wages account for 20 – 60% of their costs.
According to a 2012 Census of Agriculture Report, published by Cornell University in 2020, there are up to 2,000 farmworkers in Columbia County.