WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (WETM) – Local farmers will have to wait a while longer for the State to decide what to do about overtime pay for workers.
In January 2020, New York State implemented a 60-hour-per-week overtime threshold for farmworkers statewide. The Department of Labor then said that the Farm Labor Wage Board had to meet by December 15, 2021 to decide whether to lower that number to 40 hours per week—a decision that was delayed at the last minute.
And local farms in the Southern Tier are worried.
Alec Moore, owner of Apples and Moore—formerly Reisinger’s Apples—in Watkins Glen, runs a 15-acre u-pick apple orchard with thousands of trees. For him, the number of employees he has at any given time depends on the season.
Most of the year, Moore works with just one or two employees, but as summer bleeds into the harvest season, that number climbs. Come fall, he can have up to 22 workers helping the operation.
When the 60-hour threshold was implemented, “I watched things a little more closely,” Moore said. At that point, he only had one full-time employee, but that was enough for him to pay attention to the change.
But if the threshold does change to 40 hours, Moore said he’ll have to rethink some of his staffing while also being fair to workers.
“It’s gonna probably cause me to not pay overtime [or] hire more staff to stay without paying overtime.”
The idea of hiring more workers to spread out the hours reflects a trend across the state. Cornell University recently published a study that interviewed 40 farms—crop and dairy—around New York. A quarter of those farms hired more workers when the 60-hour threshold was put in place. Other farm owners either took on more tasks themselves to avoid spending more on labor, while others simply paid the overtime since their workers didn’t regularly work over 60 hours in a week.
Wages make up a significant part of farming costs. Tina Hazlitt from Sawmill Creek Vineyards in Hector said that labor accounts for 50-60% of the winery’s income in an average year. Moore said it’s definitely his “number one” cost, even without overtime.
And both operations’ staffing is heavily dependent on the season.
Moore’s full interview can be viewed in the player below.
Local leaders have also responded and advocated for farm owners. In September, NYS Senator Tom O’Mara and other senate Republicans wrote a letter to Governor Hochul that blamed a “downstate interest”, saying the Board has a misconception about the nature of New York Farms.
“In New York, 96 percent of farms are small, family-owned businesses,” the letter said. “These hardworking agricultural producers drive the economies of rural communities across the state and help ensure the availability of quality, in-state sourced farm products for New Yorkers.”
Hazlitt reflected O’Mara’s sentiment. “40 hours is NEVER going to work in farming. Farms are NOT factories!! Legislators need to try to understand the farming way of life, and appreciate where their food and beverages come from!”
A report by Farm Credit East estimated that mandatory overtime pay over 40 hours would increase labor costs 42% for NY farmers. The Cornell Study indicated that many farms would downsize, move elsewhere, or simply exit the business altogether.
“This would be absolutely devastating to our family farms,” said Assemblymember Phil Palmesano. He’s called on Albany to not lower the threshold, adding COVID and the ongoing supply chain issues would exacerbate the problem. “You’re gonna have a damaging ripple effect throughout New York State’s economy, especially our agricultural economy… and could be a death note to our family farms.”
Moore believes farm workers should have just as many rights as any other industry: however, “there’s a nature to the business of agriculture that is different than many other industries, even ones that operate a lot outside.” In agriculture, when it’s time to go, you go, even if that means working “10, 12, 15 hours a day to get the job done.”
He said that the ones making this decision need to look at it from all angles, talking to the workers themselves because “they might have a perspective on it that’s not in line with what people may think it would be.” It’s complicated, so the decision can’t be made lightly, Moore said.
The Farm Labor Wage Board stayed tight-lipped about its decision right up until the deadline but made the following quiet and informal announcement on December 15:
New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon announced that she will reconvene a wage board to hold virtual public hearings to hear testimony to consider the existing overtime work threshold for farm laborers and the extent to which the overtime work threshold may be lowered in New York State.
Testimony will be heard from farm laborers, agricultural employers, academic experts, and elected officials, among others. All attendees are encouraged to preregister by using the registration button below. Speakers will be scheduled on a first-come, first served-basis, and three minutes will be allotted to each speaker.NYS Farm Labor Wage Board
The announcement essentially confirms that there will be no decision until January at the soonest, so Moore said he isn’t going to work himself up over something that hasn’t happened yet.
He said he won’t worry about the issue too much for the next couple of years because a lot of his help during the harvest season is part-time. He does plan on growing and expanding the business, though, which he said would likely cause him to readdress this when the time comes.