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State Budget-NY

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks about the state budget during a news conference in the Red Room at the state Capitol Sunday, March, 31, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

With several strokes of his ceremonial pens, Gov. Andrew Cuomo granted farm laborers overtime pay, a day of rest and other labor rights. 

Cuomo signed the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act Tuesday, ending what supporters of the legislation say are Jim Crow-era exclusions that prevented farm employees from receiving the same benefits as workers in other industries. 

The bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan and state Sen. Jessica Ramos, both Queens Democrats, was approved by state lawmakers in June. After Cuomo signed the legislation, it will take effect Jan. 1, 2020. 

"One hundred thousand farmworkers will have better lives," Cuomo said before he signed the bill. "Their families will have better lives."

The measure signed by Cuomo differs from the original proposal. While it extends unemployment insurance and workers' compensation to farm laborers, requires at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week and grants workers collective bargaining rights and the right to unionize, there were changes to the overtime pay provision. 

In the initial bill, farms would be required to pay employees overtime for more than eight hours worked in a day or 40 hours in a week. The legislation signed by Cuomo sets a 60-hour-a-week overtime threshold for farm laborers. 

The overtime pay issue may not be settled. The bill establishes a three-member wage board that will consist of representatives from the New York Farm Bureau and New York State AFL-CIO. A third member will be appointed by the state labor commissioner and serve as the board's chair. 

Grow NY Farms, a coalition representing New York agriculture, urged the governor to consider changes to the legislation before signing it into law. The group's concerns include the wage board's construction, the definition of family members exempt from the overtime pay provision, preserving secret balloting for workers and setting a standard wage rate for workers who choose to work instead of taking a day off. 

Unshackle Upstate, one of the groups supporting Grow NY Farms, said the bill's final approval is a blow to the region's economy. 

"New York state has lost thousands of farms in recent years and under these new mandates, more closures and job losses are on the way," said Michael Kracker, executive director of Unshackle Upstate. "Additionally, families will pay more for farm goods at the grocery store and their local farmers market. This bill sends a message that New York is definitely not open for business." 

Proponents argue that the farm labor bill will improve working conditions for employees, some of whom have experienced poor treatment and retaliation from farmers. 

Crispin Hernandez, a former worker at a northern New York dairy farm who is now an organizer with the Workers' Center of Central New York, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of excluding farmworkers from collective bargaining rights. 

"Now that those protections will be enshrined into law through the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, we are ready to take the next step and call on our bosses to respect our right to form unions," Hernandez said in a statement. 

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