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OPINION

O’Mara: No common ground or common sense driving NY farm policy

Staff reports
The Chronicle Express

The need for aggressive and vocal legislative oversight in New York State government has never been more critical.

The perfect storm of a government under one-party control, which automatically diminishes legislative checks and balances, and the fact that the Legislature’s current leaders willingly allow Governor Andrew Cuomo to run this government purely by executive order, raises many red flags. 

N.Y. Senator Tom O'Mara

That’s especially true for the future of our family farms.  

Last year saw the approval of controversial legislation known as the “Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act,” dreamt up by two Democrat legislators from the farming bastion of Queens, New York City.

Prior to its enactment, I joined many opponents, including the New York Farm Bureau, to warn about potential consequences. We feared that mandatory overtime pay and other provisions, including the creation of a three-member Farm Wage Board granted the authority to unilaterally change the law’s provisions, without legislative approval, could seriously worsen the impact of farm labor costs on farm income.

We warned that it could increase already exorbitant farm labor costs by nearly $300 million and result in an across-the-board drop in net farm income of 23%.

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

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 rural, upstate economies.

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.  

Unfortunately, the consequences of this law are playing out as we feared. The Farm Wage Board could be preparing to lower the current 60-hour threshold requiring farmers to pay their employees overtime. This would be yet another economic disaster for New York’s farmers and farmworkers. If this Wage Board drives more farmers out of business, Governor Cuomo and the Democrat legislative majorities will be responsible

What was telling, for me, was the reaction of New York’s farm community when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation into law.

“Common ground should have considered what farms can afford and the opportunities our employees will lose as a result of this law. In the end, our reasonable requests were cast aside… What was also dismissed by many of New York’s leaders is the dignity and respect our farm families have long provided to the men and women we need and work alongside every day,” said Farm Bureau President David Fisher.

“This new law failed to take common sense into account, and in turn, will place upstate further behind in its ability to grow our farms and economy,” said Brian Reeves, President of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association.

Northeast Dairy Producers Association President and dairy farmer Jon Greenwood added, “(This new law) has the potential to both negatively impact the long-term viability of our farms and the earning potential and livelihood of our workers.”

No attempt to find common ground or common sense.

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.

In response, I currently co-sponsor legislation, supported by many farm advocates, to require the Farm Wage Board to have the appropriate data to assess the law’s full impact—as well as the impact of COVID-19—before recommending changes.

The legislation (S8944) would extend the date for the Board to submit its final report from the end of this year to Dec. 31, 2024. That allows the time needed to assess a more definitive picture of the impact of the 60-hour threshold on the operations of New York farms, as well as consider additional factors including the COVID-19 impact on the agricultural industry.