The pandemic has led to a new appreciation of the workers who make our lives possible. These essential workers include the people who produce the food we eat. But now the pandemic – which should make us more grateful for the work farm workers do – is being used as an excuse to deny these workers the same rights as virtually every other hourly wage earner.
For decades, New York farm workers have been denied basic labor rights like unemployment insurance, the right to form a union, and overtime payment. Excluding farm workers – who were mostly black at the time – from the rights accorded to all other workers was an intentional and racist compromise made by FDR to get Democrats in the South to support its New Deal legislation. Eighty-five years later, this Jim Crow policy is so embedded in farmers’ business plans that they claim they cannot survive without it.
In 2019, New York lawmakers took a historic step towards eradicating this racial and economic injustice by passing the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act. However, the law contains a painful exception – the standard trigger for overtime pay over 40 hours per week. Instead, lawmakers set the overtime cliff at 60 hours per week and asked the Labor Department to convene a wages board eighteen months later to decide whether that threshold should be lowered.
Last year, the wages board held six hearings, but in the end, members recommended a pause in the process due to the pandemic. The labor commissioner adopted these recommendations and ruled that COVID made it too difficult to say what impact lowering the threshold would have on farm owners. The commissioner left the 60-hour limit in place and pledged to revisit the issue this year.
Nevertheless, the alarmism on behalf of the big industrial farms is at full speed.
Agricultural work is twice as deadly as a police force and five times more deadly than the fight against fires. Doctors who treated farm workers to say virtually all will experience pain and injury due to the nature of agricultural work. To add insult and further harm to injuries, low wages ensure they struggle to stay above the poverty line.
Nevertheless, the alarmism on behalf of the big industrial farms is at full speed. The new line – from well-funded lobby groups like the New York Farm Bureau – is that the pandemic has made things difficult for small farmers and that paying workers the way they deserve will destroy New York’s agriculture industry.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As farm workers do all they can to get by, New York’s farming industry is booming. Even with the pandemic and the 60-hour overtime threshold, farms continue to bring in billions of dollars a year. Last year was no exception. In 2019, before the 60-hour overtime threshold came into effect, the gross cash income of New York farms was $ 6,287,480,000. In 2020, gross cash income increased to $ 6,553,493,000.
While the Farm Bureau wants us to focus on the small number of small farms that have outside employees, nearly three-quarters of New York City farms don’t even employ outside workers. Of the remaining 25 percent, many are tall, corporate farms which generate huge revenues. These factory farms have also swallowed up a disproportionate amount of farmland in New York.
And, to the extent that some small farms with employees are struggling, their fate can be largely blamed on factory farms that have consolidated the industry and made it difficult for smaller players to compete.
If the survival of small farms is a problem to be tackled, the answer cannot be the continued exploitation of workers. Perhaps these economically precarious farms should plead for a larger or additional share of the Tens of millions dollars our state spends each year to subsidize farmers; money that is allocated to things like research and development, environmental compliance, promotion of the New York agriculture industry, and tax credits.
Anything done to help these farms must not come at the expense of essential workers who are already underpaid, underestimated and critically important to our society.
Other states have lowered the overtime threshold for farm workers. California will require overtime after 40 hours starting in 2022 and in Washington in 2024.
If New York is to claim its place as a leader in economic justice, racial justice and grassroots fairness, it will ensure that the overtime threshold for farm workers is lowered to 40 hours.
Anything less perpetuates the unwarranted race-based exclusions put in place generations ago and is an insult to New Yorkers who have worked day in and day out, often risking their lives, to keep food on our plates for long. these extremely difficult times.