CONFER: Proposed overtime rules will hurt NY’s farm economy

Bob Confer

There’s a bill up for discussion in Albany that would bring dramatic changes to New York agriculture. S2837/A2750 is a multi-faceted proposal that would change how farm labor is managed, from allowing collective bargaining to mandating a day of rest. The most troubling aspect of the bill is the introduction of overtime pay to the state’s ag economy.

When the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 it mandated overtime for work over 40 hours. Farm workers were excluded from this benefit because lawmakers wanted to ensure higher labor costs did not drive up the cost of produce, meats and dairy so consumers could afford those life-sustaining necessities.

No states have made exceptions to that rule except for California where Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in 2016 that entitles farm workers to the same overtime standards afforded other workers. The impact of that legislation has not yet been felt as it is being phased-in over a four-year period beginning this year. It will be in full effect for the majority of California farms by 2022, and 2025 for enterprises with 25 or fewer employees.

If New York state were to join California as the only states to set such rules, it would be a long time before they would be joined by others, if ever: Other agriculturally-focused states aren’t entertaining the idea at all. The only thing that could bring about wholesale change would be an amendment to the aforementioned FLSA in the federal government and that’s not happening anytime soon.

So, until something does change the realm in which those increased labor costs exist – costs mandated by the state and not market factors – New York farms will be at a disadvantage against farms from other states and other countries with lower input costs. That imbalance would especially manifest itself in labor-intensive goods that can’t be prepared and harvested by a machine such as apples, peaches, cherries and milk. In order to properly compete across state borders New York farms would find it difficult if not impossible to pass the newfound costs onto food processors and consumers. New York growers and ranchers would have to eat those costs.

In consort with New York’s dramatically-rising minimum wage rates – which, as a domino effect, still impact farmers even though they pay well above the minimum – the loss of profits will have a detrimental effect on their bottom line. Estimates revealed by Farm Credit East and the New York Farm Bureau show that in frightening ways: Looking at a five-year average of financial results it has been determined that the bill would increase ag labor costs across the state by $300 million, a 17 percent leap.

What does that mean to individual farming sectors, specifically those mentioned earlier? Greenhouse and nursery operations will see their profits drop by 58 percent. Fruit growers will see theirs decline by 74 percent. Dairy farms will see all of their profits wiped out.

This could not come at a worse time. This columnist has written before of the dire straits faced by New York dairy farmers as a result of changing global demands and evolving import/export laws – over the past 5 years the Empire State has lost a fifth of its dairy farms and debt-buried farm owners have been taking their lives, or have contemplated doing so, at a rate that’s achieved crisis level. And, then, there are the vegetable and grain growers who have taken an absolute beating and are worried about the future due to international trade impasses created by the Trump Administration.

As a non-farmer you’ll feel the pain, too.

For the most part, the upstate agriculture economy doesn’t exist in a bubble as farmers are competing with others from around the world but smaller bubbles do exist at the local level where you, as the consumer, are into buying local from markets, co-ops, community supported agriculture (CSAs), and roadside stands. There, unlike with interstate and international trade, the costs have to get passed on to you. Will you enjoy shelling out a half to two-thirds more for the summer and autumnal bounties you so much enjoy?

And what of your neighbors? We often hear that the poor and those on fixed incomes cannot afford farm fresh foods — this will only serve to drive them further from the marketplace.

Of course, this is a bill introduced by legislators from metropolitan New York City (Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan) who are totally disconnected from where their food comes from and how it is grown and raised. If they chose to actually understand and experience the farm economy they would know farm workers get paid a decent dollar, are granted extra cash for the quantity picked, and are provided housing and transportation. Those are great, and costly, investments in the workforce – let’s not drive them up higher.

This bill will be disastrous if it passes. It will only make worse an already-ravaged upstate economy by harming farmers, your community, and your pocketbook.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.