ALBANY — New York’s farm lobby lost a major lobbying fight Friday when the Hochul administration approved a plan to drop the overtime threshold for agriculture laborers to 40 hours per week in a series of steps.
The decision announced by state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, a former trade union executive, drew howls from upstate Republican lawmakers.
‘ANOTHER KICK IN THE TEETH’
“In a state where the biggest economic force is agriculture, this decision will have devastating outcomes not only for farmers but for everyone who needs food on their tables to feed their families,” fumed state Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt of Niagara County.
Sen. Pete Oberacker, R-Otsego County, representing a district with scores of farms, was similarly vociferous, branding the decision “another kick in the teeth to the men and women who work the land and deliver food to our tables.”
But Reardon said she believes recommendations from the Democrat-dominated Farm Laborers Wage Board “are the best path forward to ensure equity for farm workers and success for agricultural businesses.”
STATE TAX CREDIT
The Labor Department is a state executive agency under the control of Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Advocates for reducing the overtime threshold from 60 hours per week to 40 hours say the potential for higher earnings for farmworkers will be subsidized by a state tax credit. The threshold will be reduced in a series of steps, with the 40-hour standard being implemented in 2032.
The fight over the farm overtime standard has become a contentious issue in the race for governor. GOP nominee Lee Zeldin, a Long Island congressman, has had several campaign events with farmers, insisting that moving to a 40-hour work week will harm agricultural businesses across the state.
The lone farm community member of the three-member wage board, New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher, decried the decision.
He said many workers won’t realize higher overtime pay because struggling farmers will be forced to reduced their hours rather than approve overtime for them.
He said such concerns were pointed out in hearings held by the wage board, but Reardon, initially appointed to the post by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, “simply ignored” testimony provided by experts in agricultural economics.
“Moving forward, farms will be forced to make difficult decisions on what they grow, the available hours they can provide to their employees, and their ability to compete in the marketplace,” Fisher said.
In recent weeks, Gov. Kathy Hochul has been under pressure from the New York Civil Liberties Union and other progressive groups to expedite reducing the overtime pay threshold to 40 hours.
The NYCLU maintains farm work is twice as deadly as law enforcement and five times deadlier than fighting fires.
“Despite these harms, which only increase with the number of hours worked, farm owners have no incentive to cut back on brutal schedules that go beyond 40 hours a week,” the NYCLU has stated.
Critics of the 40-hour standard maintain it will result in seasonal farmworkers — many of whom are migrants — going to other states due to concerns that they will be limited in the number of hours they can work in New York.
“If Governor Hochul has the ability to step in and stop this damaging decision, she must do so immediately,” Grow NY Farms, representing a coalition of agriculture groups ,including the New York Apple Association and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, said in a statement.
The current plan calls for the overtime threshold to drop to 52 hours per week at the beginning of 2026.
Agriculture was exempted from federal labor standards adopted in 1938. The Depression-era law, adopted before widespread mechanized farming, exempted farms from the overtime rules, with advocates then citing the seasonal nature of agriculture.
An influential Democrat, Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Broome County, is calling on the federal government to address issues of “grave importance” to farmers, including “immigration reform and updating 1930’s era farm wage rules.”