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NY farmers turn out to oppose fair labor bill

ELIZABETH LEPRO
Posted 5/8/19

LOCH SHELDRAKE, NY — The New York State Legislature is again considering a bill that would grant bargaining rights, overtime pay and unemployment benefits to farm workers in the state. Senators …

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NY farmers turn out to oppose fair labor bill

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LOCH SHELDRAKE, NY — The New York State Legislature is again considering a bill that would grant bargaining rights, overtime pay and unemployment benefits to farm workers in the state.

Senators Jen Metzger and Jessica Ramos, the bill’s sponsor, sat through five and a half hours of testimony on the Farm Workers Fair Labor Practices Act at the third of three public hearings Thursday, May 2 at SUNY Sullivan. Sen. Robert Jackson, Sen. Pete Harckham, Sen. Diane Savino, Sen. John Liu and Sen. Shelley Mayer were also present.

"Agricultural workers in New York deserve equality" reads a sign in the audience. 

One side testifying consisted mostly of farm managers and owners who say they are already struggling. This act, many said, would be the “nail in the coffin” for their businesses—a sentiment echoed by the New York Farm Bureau in its opposition of the bill.

On the other side were those who say farm workers are still operating under Jim Crow era legislation that denies basic rights, especially to migrant workers who work seasonally in New York on H2A visas.

Somewhere in the middle were the workers themselves—roughly six of whom testified, some using a translator. They would love to be paid overtime, but do not support the bill because they do not think their employers will be able to afford it.

Since many farm workers clock more than 40 hours a week in the high season, they fear it will require their bosses to cut their hours and, in some cases, their employment altogether. Ken Migliorelli, who has a farm in Tivioli in Dutchess County, said he expects to have to lay off 70 to 80% of his employees if the bill passes.

New York farmers talk on stage during a break in the day. 

“The jobs that we now have would disappear little by little,” said Cesar Arenas, who is from Mexico, but has spent 20 years working at a farm in New York. He said that farming livestock is impossible in eight hours a day. This sentiment was passed down by farm owners and managers.

Other farm managers and owners added that they frequently supply employees with non-monetary compensation, including housing and food. They said that with New York State’s minimum wage—between $12 and $15 depending on the county—farms here are already hard-pressed to compete with those in neighboring states.

Kira Kinney, who operates Conuco Farm & Evolutionary Organics in New Paltz, estimated it will cost her more than $22,000 extra to pay for what the bill requires. “This is no Jim Crow,” she said. “Farmers… are terribly maligned as exploiters of other human beings.”

Supporters of the bill say that farm workers are one of the last remaining unprotected classes of workers in the state and that not passing it would be unethical. As fewer Americans commit to farm labor as a job, migrant workers often fill those gaps. On May 6—several days after the public hearing—proponents of the bill, including Justice for Farmworkers New York, gathered in Albany to call for the Senate to end what they call a “longstanding exclusion” of those workers. Some on Thursday, including Jack Banning, who owns Black Sheep Hill Farm in Pine Plains, felt the same.

“The legislation before the New York State Senate aims for nothing more than fair, just treatment of farm workers,” Banning said. “This is a moral issue. Legislators should simply do what is right.”

Representatives from activist groups, including the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, were in the audience at the hearing. Some pointed out that very few farm workers came to speak, and those who did spoke in favor of their bosses, who were present.

“We want to see [New York farms] prosper, but not on the backs of excluding a vulnerable class of workers from basic labor laws that everyone else enjoys,” said Jessica Orozco Guttlein, speaking on behalf of the Hispanic Federation.

There were some things everyone in the Seelig Theatre at SUNY Sullivan agreed with: farm work is not the same as an office job—it’s rigorous and dangerous. The local agricultural system, some said, is fundamentally broken if it forces farm workers to argue against their own interests.

Sen Liu tries a strawberry given to the panel by a farmer testifying against the bill. 

Rev. Richard Witt, executive director of the Rural and Migrant Ministry, questioned the idea of normalizing a system that excludes some people from certain protections. How is it that, “we cannot afford to have a just system?” he asked.

“I believe in social justice, I believe in fair wages. I believe that every hand that touches the apple should be fairly, appropriately treated,” said Elizabeth Ryan, a founding member of Green Market farmers’ markets. But, she went on, agriculture is facing pressure from climate change, the need to compete with offshore production and pricing pressure. “I’d like to see us continue this process with all the parties that have turned out and really, really have a radical new deal… I think you’re hearing this resounding from the agricultural community: I do not believe that this bill is going to get us there.”

To read the full bill, which is currently in the New York State labor committee visit www.bit.ly/TRRfwbill.

Video from the New York Farmworkers Justice protest in Albany May 6, from Sandra Cuellar Oxford on Facebook.

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