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New York Legislature

New York Sen. Jessica Ramos, D-East Elmhurst, left, sits with Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, D-Sunnyside, as her Bill to extend labor rights to farmworkers is passed in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

New York lawmakers on Wednesday approved a bill that extends overtime pay and other labor rights to farmworkers.

On the final scheduled day of the legislative session, the state Assembly passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act by an 84-51 vote. The measure passed by a 40-22 vote in the state Senate.

The state Legislature's passage followed several hours of debate in both chambers. The sponsors of the bill, Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan and state Sen. Jessica Ramos, faced questions from Republicans, many of whom represent upstate districts and opposed the measure.

One of the legislation's main provisions is an overtime pay mandate. Farm employees will receive overtime pay if they work more than 60 hours a week — a change from the original bill that called for overtime after working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

Nolan acknowledged she preferred a 40-hour overtime threshold, but overtime after 60 hours of work was the product of a compromise. Some upstate legislators, including Syracuse state Sen. Rachel May, supported the change.

Some GOP lawmakers criticized the composition of a three-member wage board that will study overtime pay requirements for farmworkers. The board will consist of an AFL-CIO representative, a New York Farm Bureau official and a third member selected by the state labor commissioner. The board will begin meeting no later than March 1, 2020 and submit a report to the governor and legislators by the end of 2020.

Republicans argue Richard Ball, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, should be on the panel. The legislation allows members of the board to consult with Ball, but he won't have a seat on the board.

State Sen. Bob Antonacci, who represents parts of Cayuga and Onondaga counties, said the main reason he opposed the bill is the wage board.

"I think here we have government intervention and I think it's a little bit too much," he said. "I think that this is an overreach."

The legislation requires farmworkers to receive a day of rest every week, although family members of farmers will be exempt from the mandate and laborers may choose to work the seventh day. If they opt to work instead of taking a day off, they must be paid overtime for their shift.

Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, a Republican representing northern Cayuga County, has a farm in Lyons, Wayne County. He said his employees don't work on Sundays.

"Most of them didn't like it," he said. "Most of them want to work."

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Many GOP lawmakers fear that the legislation will harm farms and the upstate economy. Assemblyman David DiPietro, a Buffalo-area Republican, called it a "horrible, horrible bill." Assemblyman Christopher Tague, a former dairy farm, highlighted the differences between agriculture and other industries. Because of the weather, he explained, you could work 19 hours one day and four hours on another day.

Farmers, he continued, don't run their businesses like most business people.

"This bill will devastate the rural upstate economy," Tague said. "This bill will kill agriculture in rural upstate New York."

Supporters, though, believe the bill is necessary to protect farm workers from dangerous conditions and bad actors.

The legislation grants farm workers collective bargaining rights and the right to unionize, although there is a no-strike clause to prevent work stoppages and employers will be prohibited from locking out laborers during a dispute. The bill also expands unemployment insurance and workers' compensation coverage to all laborers and prohibits employers from discriminating against workers who file injury claims.

Nolan noted that the Assembly passed a version of the bill three times over the last two decades. But there wasn't enough support in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans for most of that period.

"We here in New York state will have finally addressed a wrong that has existed in our state for many, many years," Nolan said before the Assembly vote.

Excluding farmworkers from overtime pay and other labor rights was a compromise made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the mid-1930s to secure the support of southern lawmakers for New Deal legislation. New York adopted its labor standards and retained the exclusion for farm employees.

Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who was an immigration rights advocate and focused on worker exploitation issues before being elected to the state Assembly, said most of the farm workers in the early part of the 20th century were African Americans. Now, they are "undocumented and brown."

Cruz, D-Queens, recalled traveling to Batavia in western New York for a listening session with nearly 100 farmers and 200 workers. She visited farms and recognized that many farmers respect their employees. But there are farmers, she said, who consider workers as "disposable cheap labor."

"This bill is seeking to treat workers who do the hardest job in our state with dignity and respect," Cruz said. ​

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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.

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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.