Farmworkers Bill Shows Divide In State Mindsets

Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, had a message for Democrats in the state Assembly on Tuesday regarding the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

“Farmers are people too,” Giglio said in explaining his no vote on the bill. “They are out there trying to do their best. It’s in their blood, that’s why it’s generational. I’d like to invite you to a farm auction where you can see, when they go bankrupt as their dreams are sold by component and those gentlemen who had dedicated their life to their professions to see it leave piece by piece. In my district, the median income is in the mid $40,000s. There is no one rich there. No one is exploiting anyone there.”

Back-room discussions may have led to an agreement on the Farm Labor Protection Act, but a five-hour debate on the state Assembly floor showed many legislators have questions about the way the legislation would work.

The New York Farm Bureau, which was part of the non-public discussions that led to Wednesday’s hearing, still had several questions that it shared through its Grow NY Farms coalition Wednesday morning. Specifically, the coalition saw four flaws in the new legislation:

¯ requiring wages paid at an overtime rate on the prescribed day of rest if the employee accepts additional hours by declining the option of a day off;

¯ limiting the family farm definition to parents, spouses and children;

¯ limited composition of the wage board and what happens if the wage board acts recklessly; and

¯ fears the collective bargaining process doesn’t give adequate time for disputes to be voluntarily resolved.

Many Republican members of the Assembly speaking about the bill discussed some of those same reservations, including Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown.

“They say it’s 60 hours a week before overtime kicks in,” Goodell said when reached on the Assembly floor. “Then they establish a wage board that includes the AFL-CIO and the Labor Department but not the department of Agriculture and Markets. The wage board has the authority to reduce the overtime threshold but not increase it. They say we’re being very compromising, but they have set the whole thing up.”

Some Democrats blasted Republicans for putting the interests of the farm industry ahead of those of the workers on their farms while others said it was disingenuous for Republicans to speak out about New York City issues like rent control or MTA funding and then criticize Democrats in New York City and its suburbs to advocate for labor protections for farm workers.

“Workers do deserve collective bargaining,” said Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, who referred to arguments he heard in the 1990s when the state Legislature imposed more regulation on other industries. “Workers do deserve more compensation. Workers do deserve more unemployment benefits. Workers do deserve at least one day off. This should be the right in any job that we have. Some of the debates I heard today that corporate America will lose money, that farmers will lose money. We have passed legislation to hold these companies accountable and they make more money today.”

Republicans, meanwhile, criticized Democrats who have either never been on a farm or who have slim experience with farming or asked pointed questions about the way the legislation would work. They also expressed concerns that farms will see more automation as a way to employ fewer people and keep employment costs down.

Goodell had issues with implementing an arbitration system on farms because it means contracts never expire, much like municipal union contracts as well as the premise that small family farms are making millions of dollars like bigger corporate farms.

Republicans cited the Farm Credit East study that cited a $299 million increase in labor costs for New York farms under the original Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act and the already stark differences between the national percentage of the cost of farm labor (36%) and the New York state average (63%). Others cited the decreasing number of farms in the state. In Chautauqua County, the number of farms has decreased by 19% over the last five years, compared to 6%statewide.

The total number of farms in Chautauqua County, according to the census, is down from 1,515 in 2012 to 1,228 in 2017. Additionally, the total acres of land in farms in the county decreased by 5% from 2012 to 2017, currently totaling 223,634 acres.

“Who in their right minds would operate something at a loss year in and year out?” asked Daniel Stec, R-Queensbury. “People who love it, value it and people that inherited it, they’re going to slug it out hoping that some day New York state will do something to help them.”

Democrats say the workers have been excluded from labor rights and protections under the law and say the FFPLA attempts to give them basic protections while balancing those protections with the needs of farmers.

“I want to point out that the surest way to economic disaster is to run a low-wage economy where people can’t spend money in the economic system,” said Assemblyman Phil Steck. “We’ve been doing that in Upstate New York for far too long. We have to erase that philosophy and have a different approach.”

As was signalled last week, many members of the Democratic Rural Conference voted against the legislation. The upstate/downstate divide prompted at least one legislator to bring up splitting the state as a way to solve the upstate/downstate divide.

“This could be biggest joke bill I’ve ever seen in Assembly history,” said Assemblyman David DePietro, R-Erie and Wyoming counties. “This shows the divide between New York City and the rest of the state. It brings back something I hear all the time in my district, ‘We just don’t need New York state.’ While New York City has one way of thinking, it doesn’t always match up to the rest of the state. This bill is the equivalency of that mindset.”