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May 21, 2019 1:28 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Local Farmers Worry State Overtime Legislation For Workers Could Threaten Their Viability

Farmers warn that proposed legislation that would require them to pay overtime could put them out of business.
May 21, 2019 3:39 PM

As they scramble to get crops into the ground after a soggy spring, East End farmers fear a proposed state law could threaten their very existence by forcing them to limit workers to 40 hours per week, or to inflate payrolls with overtime wages.

If farmhands were to be paid the traditional time-and-a-half wage for anything beyond 40 hours in a work week—in a business whose time on the clock is dictated entirely by the weather—farmers say the additional costs would decimate already razor-thin profit margins.

And with their ability to raise prices for produce already greatly hamstrung by the price of food imported from other states and countries, including places where worker compensation is a fraction of what it is in New York, the farmers say their options are few, and that many would be driven out of business entirely.

“There will have to be a revolution in food prices before there can be a revolution in how farm workers are compensated,” Sagaponack farmer Marilee Foster said while riding a tattered metal seat, which was hanging nearly in the dirt off the back of a tractor being driven by her longtime employee Wallace “Bulldog” Brinson. “If it rains one week and I have to pay time-and-a-half the next week when we’re making up for that, that’s tripling my labor costs—but I’m still only making the same money on my product at the end of the year.”

As Mr. Brinson creeped the tractor forward through a field hidden from view behind multimillion-dollar mansions, Ms. Foster plugged tiny okra sprouts into holes punched in the rain-packed loam via an iron wheel rotating near where her feet rested.

Weeks of heavy rains have the planting season for most farmers nearly a month behind schedule, and Ms. Foster and other farmers say they are working from before dawn into the night to catch up. If workers were paid regular overtime like factory employees, the financial burden of the extra hours would be untenable, they say, especially on family farms.

“Overtime on a farm just doesn’t fit the type of business you are running—it will put a lot of the little guys right out the business,” Ms. Foster’s brother, Dean, said that morning. “Farming is a way of life, not a typical business. The people that are involved in it understand that, and that’s why they come to work at a farm instead of going to a cubicle job.”

Local farm workers, for their part, seem to welcome the additional work and understand the employers’ plight. And they keep coming back for the jobs that require enduring long hours at times, down periods at others.

“I’ve been working here a long time—this is a nice place to work,” said Adrian Rojas, a resident of Mexico who has been coming to the United States on a work visa each summer season for nine years to work at the Halsey family’s apple farm in Water Mill.

Mr. Rojas said he worried that if time-and-a-half overtime became the rule, farmers like Jennifer Halsey would simply have to resort to hiring more workers at regular wages to ensure that nobody worked more than 40 hours. “Then we’d get less hours, and we wouldn’t be able to support our families,” he said. “We’d need two jobs—but we aren’t allowed to do that, because of our visa.” The visa ties a worker to a single sponsoring employer.

A bill that is being considered by the State Legislature currently, known as the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, is only the latest version of similar bills that have been introduced repeatedly over the last 15 years but have never won the votes to pass into law. However, with a Democratic majority in both the State Senate and Assembly, led by a New York City coalition, proponents hope this year will be the clincher.

The initiative seeks to bring the same workplace protections that workers in other industries enjoy to the state’s farm fields—like the right to unionize, overtime pay and workplace safety. Proponents of the law say that small farms with only a few workers shouldn’t see substantial cost impacts based on the bill’s provisions.

Ms. Halsey says that such claims are patently absurd—and that her payroll costs for three full-time employees would go up 25 percent or more if she had to pay overtime.

The main restraint on farmers being able to absorb rising wages is, of course, the cost of food. While the costs of products and services around the state have climbed steadily, the cost of food has been artificially retarded by imports from other regions of the country and from other countries.

“If a landscaper who charges someone $150 an hour just to show up has to pay his employees more, he just tacks that cost on and passes it along to his customers,” Ms. Halsey said. “But I can only charge so much for a bag of apples. Everyone wants cheap food—but that’s where you get high-fructose corn syrup and processed cheese. Mac-and-cheese for a dollar.”

She said that major food distributors are already using almost no produce from New York, replaced by food that has been shipped long distances, from places with even fewer protections for workers, and with nutrients vanishing from the produce with each mile it travels—a dozen ears of corn for $6.50 or $7 at a farm stand, compared to three for $1 at a grocery store

Ms. Foster echoed the sentiment and said that the cost of producing local vegetables already has farm stands deeply undercut by produce shipped from Mexico and Canada and California, and offered in supermarkets as though it were on par with local produce.

“In Pennsylvania, they are paying $7.25 or $7.50 an hour—but we have to pay $17 an hour to compete with the luxury landscaping market for labor,” Ms. Foster said. “It’s not like we are not paying minimum wage here.”

Rob Carpenter, the executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said that the artificially low price of food that is fed by foreign markets poses a risk to the American economy and possibly even national security. If America’s small farms are allowed to be depleted to the point that a substantial percentage of the food we consume is imported from other countries, he said, it puts the nation in a precarious strategic position in the event of a trade war, or real war.

“And look at Texas and California, where water is now the biggest issue—what if we have another Dust Bowl and it hits these areas where all our food is grown, because we’ve put the small regional farms out of business?” Mr. Carpenter said.

“And for what purpose? Small farmers care about their workers. They have great relationships and the same workers come back year after year.”

He added, “I would really question whether supporters of this are really understanding the bigger picture.”

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