ESSAY/SEN. TOM O'MARA: Decision could forever impact New York State agriculture

Sen. Tom O'Mara

A New York State Farm Wage Board, put in place through a state law enacted in 2019 known as the “Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act,” is about to revisit one of the law’s key provisions and the outcome could forever impact the future of New York agriculture.

In other words, it’s a monumental moment in time for our farmers.

This Wage Board will be deciding, without legislative approval, whether to lower the mandatory overtime pay threshold for farm workers from the current 60 hours to 40 hours.

N.Y. Senator Tom O'Mara

Keep in mind that the 2019 law was enacted following a strong push by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo in his pursuit, in my view, of a so-called “progressive” political agenda that simply failed to recognize the unique position of farming as an industry.

Throughout the year prior to the enactment of the “Farmworkers Fair Labor Pratices Act,” many opponents, including the New York Farm Bureau, warned about its consequences and set out to find some reasonable compromise and common ground. I fully shared this opposition and the need for common sense, and fought hard against the law that was ultimately enacted. In particular, we feared that mandatory overtime pay and other provisions, especially the creation of this three-member Farm Wage Board granted the authority to unilaterally change the law without legislative approval, could worsen the impact of farm labor costs on farm income at a time when the farm economy is already struggling.

We warned that it could increase already exorbitant farm labor costs by nearly $300 million or close to 20%, resulting in an across-the-board drop in net farm income of 23% -- keeping in mind that over the past five years, New York State has already lost 20 percent of our dairy farms.

Those concerns remain at forefront to this very moment.

It has been reported that farm labor costs in New York State increased 40 percent over the past decade and that the 2019 law could result in another crippling 44-percent increase in wage expenses. Total farm labor costs are at least 63 percent of net cash farm income in New York, compared to 36 percent nationally.

I debated and voted against the Act when the Senate approved it in June 2019.

The bottom line is that this misguided action by a state government triumvirate of leaders under one-party, largely downstate-based control — guided on many current issues by a far-left, extreme-liberal governing philosophy — has profound implications throughout local farm economies across rural, upstate New York, including driving more family farms out of business.

And that was the case even before COVID-19, which we now know has taken its own toll on our farmers and the entire agricultural industry, and heightened the burdens.

In short, the Farm Wage Board could be on the verge of lowering the 60-hour overtime threshold and, by doing so, delivering yet another economic disaster for New York’s farmers and farm workers at a time when they can least afford it.

Grow NY Farms, a statewide coalition of farmers and other agricultural leaders working to maintain the 60-hour overtime threshold, continues to undertake an online letter writing campaign that offers the opportunity to voice your opposition to lowering the 60-hour overtime threshold. A link to the coalition’s “Maintain the 60-hour Work Week!” campaign can be found on the Grow NY Farms website, www.grownyfarms.com.

A recent report from Farm Credit East concluded that a 40-hour overtime threshold would have far-reaching, negative consequences for farming and New York State’s entire agricultural sector (including farm workers themselves), as well as an alarming ripple effect throughout many Upstate communities. The group’s analysis predicted that farm labor costs would increase by approximately $264 million, or 42%.

“A significant increase in labor costs would serve as a disincentive to growing the agricultural sector, and in some cases, if farms cease operations or shift to less labor-intensive crops, jobs could be lost both in production agriculture as well as related processing and marketing businesses which rely on farm output,” the Farm Credit East report concluded. The full report can be found on www.farmcrediteast.com.

In my view, before even considering any changes, the Wage Board must allow adequate time to collect and assess data that would provide a more definitive picture of the impact of the 60-hour threshold on the finances and operations of New York farms, as well as consider additional factors including COVID-19’s ongoing impact on the agricultural industry.

It is critical for upstate legislators, for whom the farm economy is a foundation of communities we represent, to continue sounding the alarm on a Wage Board still holding the future of so many farmers and rural economies in its hands.

Many of us, on a bipartisan basis by the way, are doing just that.

This is the worst possible time to risk mandating and regulating more farms out of business.

New York State Senator Tom O'Mara represents the 58th District, which includes Yates, Steuben, Schuyler and Chemung counties and a portion of Tompkins County. State Assemblyman Phil Palmesano represents the 132nd District, which includes Yates and Schuyler counties and portions of Chemung, Seneca and Steuben counties.