NY Farmworker Union

FILE - Advocacy groups join farm workers during a rally outside the state Capitol on Wednesday, June 1, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. Farm workers from Long Island marched to Albany to bring attention for legislative action to end the inequality that currently burdens farmworkers in the state. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

A coalition of New York business groups is urging state legislators to oppose a bill that would grant labor rights, including overtime pay and collective bargaining, to farmworkers. 

Unshackle Upstate, the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce and 16 other organizations sent a letter Monday explaining their opposition to the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Cathy Nolan. 

If the legislation is enacted, farmworkers would have collective bargaining rights and could form unions. They would receive at least one day off each week and overtime pay if they work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. Laborers would be eligible for unemployment insurance and workers' compensation. 

The bill is supported by Democratic lawmakers and several advocacy groups, including the Workers' Center of Central New York. Proponents of the measure say it will end a Jim Crow-era exclusion that prevents farm employees from receiving the same benefits available to other workers. They also argue it would help address poor conditions on farms and prevent retaliation against farmworkers. 

But pro-business organizations believe the measure would hurt New York farms. In the letter to legislators, the groups cited Census of Agriculture data that found New York lost roughly 2,100 farms over a five-year period. 

The letter also references a Farm Credit East study that estimated the overtime pay mandate would increase labor costs for farms by nearly $300 million. 

"These mandates, coupled with the recently enacted minimum wage hike and other costly legislative mandates familiar to New York employers, will jeopardize New York's robust agriculture industry and the nearly 200,000 jobs it supports across the state," the business organizations wrote. 

Ramos, D-Queens and state Sen. Jen Metzger, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, held three hearings on the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act in late April and early May. At the SUNY Morrisville hearing last month, farmers said the overtime pay and collective bargaining provisions were the most troubling to them. Several farmers said the overtime pay mandate would increase their labor costs and hurt their ability to compete with out-of-state producers. 

The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act isn't a new proposal. It was first introduced two decades ago, but it hasn't advanced in the state Legislature. With the exception of the 2009 and 2010 sessions, Republicans controlled the state Senate. While the bill received support in the Democratic-led state Assembly, it was blocked in the Senate. 

Now that Democrats hold a majority of seats in the Senate, the farm labor bill is a priority. With Ramos as the sponsor and 31 cosponsors, there are enough votes to pass the bill if it's brought to the Senate floor for consideration. 

However, business groups hope Democrats will reconsider. 

"As was evident by the testimony from farm owners and workers at recently held Senate hearings, this proposal represents an existential threat to New York's agricultural industry," the coalition wrote. "Given the exodus of jobs and population in New York, the last thing we should be doing is adding more burdens to businesses — especially in such a critical industry." 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.


Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.