Farm Bureau Members Speak About Proposed Farm Labor Legislation

New York Farm Bureau members recently talked about the positive work happening on their farms to support their employees and the need to have a viable farm economy. They also voiced concerns about the expected financial impacts of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act (S. 2837/A. 2750) proposed in the state Legislature.

Beginning late last year, New York Farm Bureau encouraged downstate lawmakers to hold upstate events on this issue. It is imperative urban lawmakers understand rural issues and the reality that exists on farms for farmworkers before they vote on the legislation. Farmers and farmworkers were also encouraged to sign up to testify at three scheduled Senate Hearings on the bill. They will take place April 25 at the State University at Morrisville, April 26 on Long Island and May 2 at the State University at Sullivan.

The bill includes allowing for collective bargaining with the ability for farmworkers to strike at any time, including at critical times throughout the growing and harvest seasons or when animals need cared for. It also would require overtime on farms, not only above a 40-hour work week, but also any hours beyond an eight-hour day. Farm Credit East estimates this will increase labor costs, on average, by 17 percent or nearly $300 million statewide.

“We as a family, treat our employees as family. We can’t do this without them. When a person enjoys working for you, they do a better job,” said Dale Stein, a dairy farmer who hosted the event on his farm, Stein Farms. He also spoke of the challenges of the farm economy and how overtime would dramatically increase labor costs on his farm. “It doesn’t matter how much you want to do something, if you can’t pay for it. This could be the single, most devastating thing to happen to agriculture in this state.”

Other participants included Jeff Toussaint, a crop producer and fruit farmer in Medina. “The jobs we do and the tasks we perform are time sensitive and affected by the weather. We estimate labor costs on our farm would increase dramatically, by 15 percent. This would be extremely difficult to digest because we can’t just walk into the grocery store and demand more money for what we produce. This is because we work in a global market and must compete against other apple growing states and countries whose costs of production are dramatically lower than those of us in New York State,” said Toussaint.

Toussaint added that reducing hours will make his current employees unhappy and make it difficult to attract and retain additional employees.

“We will sit down and evaluate what we do and what we grow. At a minimum, right now, we would reduce our production of fruits because the increased costs would make it unprofitable. This would result in fewer jobs. Worse case scenario, if apple production becomes unprofitable, we would exit the business, bulldoze our apple orchards and revert the ground back to field production which is highly mechanized and requires much less labor,” he said.

Jim Starowitz, a vegetable farmer in Byron, echoed similar concerns and spoke about the competitive wages and benefits, including health insurance, retirement accounts, paid sick time and end of year bonuses that they offer to their employees. He said new overtime costs would mean an additional $200,000 a year in costs to his farm and these are costs that they will not be able to pass along in a competitive market. He believes they too would move to a row crop business or close their doors, losing 16 jobs.

“The local community is also losing. They will not have that money put back into the local community. Our local ag retailers would also be forced to cut jobs. We also need to think of the processing facilities that buy our products. There will be a damaging ripple effect throughout the supply chain,” said Starowitz. “I understand the intention of this bill and truly respect the ideas. However, it seems there is not a true understanding of agriculture in New York State. I believe in paying employees their true worth and taking care of them, but we still must be economically viable.”

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