Hochul’s labor commissioner approves 10 year phase-in to 40 hour farm laborer work week

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The Clark family of dairy farmers, and their Delaware County creamery, have been around since 1907. (Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo/WSKG)

Late on Friday, Governor Kathy Hochul’s labor commissioner, Roberta Reardon, issued an order to phase-in a 40-hour work week for farm laborers by 2032. The plan, recommended by a wage board, has sparked backlash from farmers and some Republican elected officials who say it will severely harm the state’s farming industry.

The Farm Laborers Wage Board in September, carrying out the details of a 2019 law, outlined a path that would reduce the hours gradually, from the current 60-hour week. The limit will be 56 hours a week beginning in January 2024, and then be reduced every two years until it reaches 40 hours on January 1, 2032. Farm laborers can work more than the minimum of 40 hours a week, but the farm owners must pay them overtime for it.

Hochul, speaking two days before the decision was issued, said if her labor commissioner approved the plan, she would support it.

“That is the right thing to do,” Hochul said on September 28.

When the law was passed three years ago, it was praised by Democrats and workers rights advocates, who said farm workers would finally hold the same rights to overtime pay that nearly every other profession has held for decades.

New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said that Friday’s decision shows “the cause for justice finally prevailed.”

Farm owners disagree.

David Fisher, the president of the New York State Farm Bureau, was the only member of the farm laborers wage board to vote against the plan. In a statement, Fisher called the commissioner’s order “a difficult day for all those who care about New York being able to feed itself.”

Farm owners have argued that the growing and harvesting season is too short to limit the hours that laborers put in planting and picking the crops. They say their operating margins are so thin that they can’t afford to pay overtime.

They have predicted that some farms and dairy operations will have to close, and that farm workers will seek out neighboring states, where they can work more hours and earn more money.

Peter Ten Eyck, the longtime owner of Indian Ladder Farms, a popular apple orchard outside of Albany, was part of news conference in August held by farm owners who oppose the changes.

Ten Eyck predicted that many farms will be forced to close.

“First, you’re going to lose the weakest farms,” said Ten Eyck. “The next thing you’re going to lose is the next generation of farmers. People are not going to go into this business. They’re not going to continue on.”

The chair of the Northeast Dairy Producers, John Dickenson, accused Reardon of ignoring two years of testimony and data from farmers and farm workers, showing that the reduced work week would harm milk producers.

Hochul said farmers won’t be financially harmed, because she and the legislature in the state budget approved a front loaded tax credit program that will compensate farmers for any overtime costs. The governor said she understands how “critical” the farm industry is to the state.

“That extra cost will absorbed by state of New York,” Hochul said. “Because, to me, the farm community is part of our national security, it’s part of our state’s economic security. It’s a huge driver of jobs.”

Hochul said the additional overtime pay will aide New York farmers, who are competing with other states for a limited supply of workers.

“They are still going to work 60 hours. It’s going to be a long day. That’s how the season works,” the governor said. “But they are getting paid for every penny in overtime as well, that they are not getting paid in other states. That’s an advantage.”

The farm owners remain unconvinced, and they have allies among Republicans in the state legislature, who are in the minority party there. State Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt, in a statement, called the decision “nothing short of a scheduled collapse of New York’s agricultural industry.”

Hochul’s opponent in the 2022 governor’s race, Republican Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, has also sided with the farm owners.

“Just when New York farmers thought life couldn’t be any more difficult in the Empire State, Kathy Hochul has failed New York farmers once again,” Zeldin said in a statement. “This overtime rule only adds insult to injury and these are all costs that are going to be passed on to the consumer made up of everyday New Yorkers who are already struggling to put food on the table.”