TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Though most workers in America secured rights to collective bargaining, overtime pay, workers compensation and unemployment benefits 80 years ago, New York’s farmworkers still lack these protections. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which is currently making its way through the state legislature, would extend these protections to agricultural workers.

The bill has languished in Albany for two decades, but agricultural labor advocates in Tompkins County and throughout the state are cautiously optimistic it could pass the newly Democratic Senate. However, farmer advocacy groups, led by the New York Farm Bureau, are raising concerns about how measures included in the bill would impact farmers’ bottom line.

What’s in the bill?

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act would extend collective bargaining rights guaranteed to other workers by the federal National Labor Relations Act to farmworkers. Domestic workers and farmworkers were excluded from the federal legislation when it was introduced in 1935. The New York State Employment Relations Act, modeled on the NLRA, was amended to extend protections to domestic workers in 2010 but still does not protect collective bargaining for farmworkers.

In addition to enshrining the right to organize, the bill would guarantee workers one day of rest per week, extend workers compensation and unemployment insurance to farmworkers, and would regulate the health and safety of worker housing.

Perhaps most controversially, the bill would also extend overtime protections to farmworkers. As currently drafted, it would require pay at time-and-a-half for work beyond 40 hours per week.

Tompkins County advocates weigh in

Labor advocates from Tompkins County traveled to Sullivan County on Thursday, May 2, to speak in support of the bill at a Senate hearing. Carlos Gutierrez, health and safety training for the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, said stories of farmworker exploitation are well known by now, but that was attending to add testimony.

Gutierrez said workers come to the state from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to escape poor economic conditions, “and then they get stuck here working basically every single day with almost no rest.” The community has an ethical obligation, he said, to expand labor protections to include farmworkers. “By our values, in our community, we cannot accept that these people are working in almost slavery conditions, that they are still being exploited.”

Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworker Program, likewise said the bill confronts a moral issue.

She acknowledged overtime pay could strain farmers’ finances, but said, “While that’s a legitimate concern, should farmworkers be paying the price? It’s really an issue of equity- bringing the same protections to farmworkers that all other workers in New York State enjoy.”

Dudley said the overtime provision would have a significant impact. “I don’t know many farmworkers who work as few as 40 hours per week,” she said.

Assuming farms require a fixed amount of labor to produce crops and care for animals, farmers would need to increase their labor costs or recruit additional workers to meet demand. This could be challenging for dairy producers in light of statewide agricultural labor shortages, Dudley said.

Nevertheless, Gutierrez said extending overtime protections to farmworkers would be a step toward equity, and he and Dudley both emphasized that pay is just one issue covered by the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

Regular health and safety inspections at worker housing could significantly improve workers’ wellbeing, Dudley said, noting that it was only in the 1990s that agricultural workers won rights to clean drinking water and access to toilets.

The right to organize, Gutierrez said, would help workers push for safer working and living conditions. “There’s no legislation that really protects them, so workers do what they do,” he said.

Democrat Barbara Lifton, who represents Tompkins County in the Assembly, is a co-sponsor of the bill but said she thinks the legislature should tread carefully.

“While I have long supported legislation to treat farmworkers with greater fairness, in this climate where New York farms are in considerable distress, I am urging Assembly leadership to act with caution on new law in this area. I support the day of rest bill and collective bargaining rights, but we need to proceed with caution on the overtime issue. I have met with farmworkers, and they would like the ability to have a driver’s license, which I support. Farms are not factories, where the owners have considerable control over conditions, and we need to keep that in mind,” Lifton said.

Opposition to costs of the bill

The New York Farm Bureau has been the bill’s most vocal opponent, claiming it would drive farms out of business by increasing labor costs.

Norman Davidson, president of the Tompkins County Farm Bureau, said the Farm Bureau is “a grassroots organization” and that he doesn’t speak on behalf of all county members, but said the county office is aligned with the state office’s opposition to the bill.

“This is one more bag in the wagon to carry when all of a sudden your labor price goes out of line,” Davidson said.

Farmers have little control over their labor needs, Davidson said, meaning they’ll need to spend extra to recruit workers or pay overtime if the bill were to pass. “When the crop is coming out of the field, the apples are in the tree, or the cow is ready to milk, what do you do?”

Because crop prices are fixed, he said farmers can’t offset costs by raising their prices. “We’re price-takers, we don’t have a choice when we go out there,” Davidson said.

Davidson speculated that rising labor costs could push farmers to aggregate larger fields suitable for mechanized planting and harvesting, or in the case of dairy farmers to shift to robotic milking. Further, he said he worried that if farmers cut hours to avoid overtime costs, workers would leave the state. “The vast majority of these workers work where they want to, and if they can’t get the hours in New York State, they’ll go to Pennsylvania,” he said.

Republican Tom O’Mara, who represents most of Tompkins County in the Senate, has been outspoken in his opposition to the bill, too. “The misguided and misrepresented Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act poses an extreme action at a time of already severe economic struggle for New York State farmers,” O’Mara wrote in a letter to the Democratic leadership in March.

O’Mara also signed onto a letter written by Republican Sen. Pamela Helming, who represents Lansing, calling for additional hearings and stating, “The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act would have a devastating impact on the industry as a whole, especially our small family operations, and their hardworking employees.”

Next steps

The bill has had enough support to pass the Assembly in previous legislative sessions, but failed by three votes the last time it came up for a Senate vote in 2010. Versions of the bill are currently in the Labor Committee in each chamber. Assemblywoman Lifton is one of 46 co-sponsors in the Assembly, and it has 32 Senate co-sponsors.

Dudley said with new leadership in the legislature, there’s a chance the bill will pass but likely with revisions. “What I’ve seen in the past is that a bill might start out with certain language, and after a series of compromises the provisions of the bill may change. I’m not sure the bill as it is currently written will pass, but I’m more optimistic than the last time there were legislative hearings,” Dudley said.

Gutierrez said the Senate hearings in Madison, Suffolk and Sullivan counties offered a chance to raise awareness about issues vulnerable workers are reluctant to speak out about.

“It’s an opportunity for us, for the workers, advocates, and for the new people especially in the Senate, to take on this bill because it’s the right thing to do,” Gutierrez said.

Featured image: A dairy farm in Dryden. (Devon Magliozzi/Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.