(Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series looking at the impact the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, legislation currently being considered in both houses of the New York State Legislature, that could have on the area's farmworkers.)
Farming in the United States is under attack. As someone who is a news junkie with a longtime interest in farmworker issues, I am guilty of being unaware about specific details of the situation, especially locally. With a vast array of outlets feeding us news, I, like others, simply haven't digested everything going on, sometimes tuning it out.
What’s happening to local farmworkers and farm owners right now is important and may directly impact everyone reading this. Let’s face it: We all have to eat, and many of our state-based farms are the ones putting the food and drinks on our tables.
Nationally, the Trump tariffs on China and other countries has been a blow to many farmers' economic bottom line in the past year. The majority of the bailout dollars are going to large farms with annual revenues in the millions of dollars. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 98 percent of New York farms are family-owned and far smaller in size.
What's occurring in New York might be the double whammy that could cripple the agriculture industry. That is not hyperbole. Agriculture is the largest industry in the state, with over $5 billion in business annually. According to the USDA, from 2012-17 the state lost 20 percent of its dairy farms due to lower commodity prices and rising labor costs. In all farm categories during that same five-year period over 2,100 farms ceased operations.
The state Legislature is now controlled by Democrats in both houses, only the second time since World War II that's happened, and there is a strong effort being made to push through a Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (S2837/A2750) — perhaps even before the close of the current legislative session next Wednesday.
What is in the bill?
Employees would be paid overtime for working more than eight hours a day. The bill also would make farmworkers eligible for unemployment insurance and workers' compensation. It would grant farm employees collective bargaining rights, the right to unionize, and at least one day off every week.
On the surface, it seems reasonable. Dig deeper, though, and you'll find it is far from that.
"The road to the poor house is paved with good intentions," an Ontario County dairy farmer said recently, recalling something his father, a first-generation farmer, told him many years ago. It's a variation of a proverb that uses the word hell instead of poor house.
Farming often is weather dependent. According to another local farmer, the recent spell of good weather was the longest consecutive stretch of nice days since late last year. He is behind on planting his cabbage and was finally able to get started last week.
Because of the weather, a worker might put in four hours one day and 12 the next. Under the new bill the latter day's four hours above eight must be paid as overtime regardless whether that employee works 40, 50 or 60 hours. In short, it is an economic model that is unsustainable for many of the smaller farms in our region.
According to the USDA, 83 percent of farmworkers are Hispanic, and many are here through the H-2A Visa Program for Temporary Workers. The program currently pays them $13 an hour, along with providing free housing and transportation. Being foreign-born and with a set contract rate, it is imperative to work as many hours as possible.
Most farmworkers, whether local, foreign-born or undocumented, willingly put in 60-hour weeks. All make more than the minimum wage (see attached graphic) and receive housing assistance.
Besides having families to support, many foreign-born workers send money back to their relatives, who often live in poverty-stricken areas of their homeland.
If unable to get the hours needed, the workers will simply move to another state. Forty-six states currently do not require mandatory overtime pay for agriculture workers.
Let’s face it, you won't find a whole lot of Americans willing to embrace manual-labor positions in the field or in dairy barns, working 50-60 hours a week, no matter how much they get paid.
Dairy farms are different than vegetable growers. The farms operate year-round and have many longtime employees, some who have been here for decades and who have raised families here. Their kids attend local schools. As a family they contribute on several levels to the local economy.
Dairy farmworkers also work 60-hour weeks.
Relocating to another state to find suitable income flies against the stability they have found working on a dairy farm in New York.
TOMORROW: Part 2 — The politics of it all