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Farm ‘Survivability’ Threatened With Lower OT Threshold

James Militello, a Forestville grape farmer, speaks during a public hearing earlier this month about a proposed change in the overtime threshold for farm workers.

A coalition of farmers, including a Forestville grape farmer, spoke out this month against a proposed change in the overtime threshold from 60 hours to 40 hours per week.

Farm owners and workers were joined by independent researchers from Cornell in opposing the change, during virtual Farm Laborers Wage Board hearings this month.

There was such a large turnout of people seeking to testify that the board scheduled another hearing for Friday at 2 p.m.

According to the Grow NY Farms Coalition, which opposes the overtime change, some 66% of speakers at the Jan. 4 hearing, 74% at the Jan. 18 hearing and 77% on Jan. 20, spoke against the proposal.

James Militello, a fifth-generation grape grower from Forestville, was among the farmers to criticize the proposed change at the hearings.

“My position on the overtime threshold is that it should remain at 60 hours per week,” he said. “I’m here to tell you, there will never be a right time to lower the threshold to 40 hours. If the state of New York lowers the threshold at all, it will decimate the New York state agricultural industry.”

He said the 60-hour threshold was fair to all because most times of the year, workers can complete tasks within that time.

“It is not feasible to continue to grow grapes in New York if the threshold is lowered to 40 hours, combined with scheduled minimum wage increases,” Militello said. “I have no ability to raise the price of my commodity to the processor, so I do not have the ability to offset the increased payroll causes by the 40 hour payroll.”

He said he would have to prioritize the most essential workers and mechanize some jobs. “I would not be happy to make these changes but it is a matter of survivability for the farm,” he said.

Militello asserted that the lower threshold would actually hurt his employees, as most work 50 to 60 hours a week now, but would be reduced to 40 or less.

“I ask the lawmakers of this state to write into the labor law that the overtime threshold will stay at 60 hours per week without further review,” he concluded. “This will give the farmers of New York State the stability we deserve to build strong businesses for our employees.”

The wage board had planned to make a decision about lowering the threshold in December. The decision was delayed on Dec. 15, when state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon announced she would order a new slate of public hearings. The first round was held earlier in 2021.

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