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Lawmakers Should Raise Overtime Threshold For Farms

It was obvious last year with the passage of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Protections Act that downstate Democrats are out of touch with the needs of the state’s agricultural community.

This week provided a reminder of just how out of touch the Democrats who wrote the legislation actually are. The law contains a 60-hour overtime threshold for farm workers that is to be revisited by a state Labor Department wage board. State Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, was quick to point out last year how flimsy the 60-hour overtime rule for farm labor in the Farm Laborer’s Fair Labor Act actually is. The wage board, as Goodell pointed out, is statutorily bound to only decrease the overtime number, not increase it. The law’s mandate that the wage board be convened starting in March — for a law that didn’t take effect until January 1 — makes the overtime rule even more flimsy.

The 60-hour rule might make it through only one growing season before the state decreases the overtime threshold, a number legislators included in the legislation for the sole purpose of mollifying the opposition of the agricultural community. What does it say about Democrats’ view of the agricultural community that its plan to make the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Protections Act amenable to farmers might not even last until the start of the law’s first harvest? Public hearings will be held starting in March and continuing in April with the wage board’s decision on the 60-hour overtime treshold due by December, though a decision could come earlier than that.

The best farmers can hope for is that the wage board keeps the overtime threshold the same. In the absence of hard data from either side the wage board should keep the 60-hour rule and reconvene the wage board in 2021. At least there will be one year of information for workers and farmers to use to make their case to the wage board. Additionally, the legislature should consider an amendment giving some wiggle room to the labor board to change the overtime threshold in the case of extreme weather. The New York State Farm Bureau has a valid concern that a perfect growing season may lead to a decrease in the overtime threshold one year that creates an impossible business situation in the case of a major drought or rainy season.

We don’t expect the legislature to ever approve a mechanism allowing the overtime threshold to increase, but a mechanism providing relief during a particularly difficult growing season might save some family farms from ruination.

Such a mechanism would also go a long way toward rebuilding a modicum of trust between the agricultural community and state government.

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