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Governor undecided on lower overtime threshold for New York's farm workers

NEW YORK NOW - Gov. Kathy Hochul said Tuesday that she hasn’t decided if she’ll accept a recommendation from a state wage board to lower the number of hours farm workers have to work to earn overtime in New York.

Hochul said she’s still considering the decision, but that she would seek to offset the new cost for farmers if she accepts the recommendation.

“We are looking at it closely,” Hochul said. “We want to get it right for them as well, and make sure we take care of our workers, give them what they need, but give the farmers, perhaps tax relief, to ameliorate the impacts.”

When she unveiled her executive budget proposal last month, Hochul included a $130 million tax credit for farmers to cover the cost of overtime.

That will be negotiated between her office and the state Legislature over the next month and a half before a final spending plan is due at the end of March. It’s unclear where Democrats, who control the state Legislature, land on the proposal.

The issue was born from a law approved more than two years ago by lawmakers, which set the current overtime threshold for farm workers at 60 hours a week. The law also allowed those workers to unionize.

But part of that law also required a state wage board to consider if farm workers should, instead, earn overtime at 40 hours.

Supporters of a lower overtime threshold have argued that farm workers should have the same overtime standards as workers from every other industry in the state.

The wage board recommended, at the end of January, that the overtime threshold for farm workers be lowered to 40 hours over the next decade. It would be phased in over time, under that recommendation, and fully effective by 2032.

By then, farmers would have to choose to either limit their workers to 40 hours a week or absorb the new cost of overtime.

The New York Farm Bureau, which represents the state’s farmers, has been opposed to the recommendation, saying it would force farms to either downsize or close altogether because of the added cost of overtime — and the nature of the industry.

Farms plan their work around the weather and other external factors that make a traditional work week impossible, said Jeff Williams, director of public policy at the New York Farm Bureau.

“Farming isn’t a 40-hour work week,” Williams said. “If it goes to 40, farmers will be uncompetitive against other states. This is a national problem. It’s a state-led issue.”

Williams, and other opponents of lowering the overtime threshold, have also argued that farms would lose workers to other states, where their hours are less likely to be cut.

Hochul said Tuesday that she’d like the federal government to address that concern by approving more visas for workers to come in from other counties.

“The federal government needs to step up … and free up more visas so they can get the temporary guest workers, and not just during the growing season, but also year-round for our dairy farmers,” Hochul said.

Hochul also said she had a “very productive” meeting with representatives from the agricultural industry, including the Farm Bureau. Her decision is expected in the coming weeks.