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Our view: Hearings on farm labor should not be the last

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Oakwood Farms

Workers prepare cows for milking at Oakwood Dairy in Aurelius in January 2020.

A series of upcoming hearings regarding overtime work on farms is going to be an important part of future regulations for New York farmers, but these meetings should not be the last word on the matter.

Among the labor reforms passed by the state Legislature last year that took effect in January is a provision that workers be paid overtime after 60 hours per week, with the expectation that number will eventually be lowered. To that end, the state Department of Labor this week formed a wage board to study the impact of overtime on farms and make recommendations about what should be done next.

We agree that farmworkers had been overlooked for too long and that working conditions were in need of improvement, but we also understand the benefit of compromise when it comes to establishing a threshold for overtime because moving too fast too soon could have a devastating fiscal impact on farms in Cayuga County and across the state. As the wage board begins its work, it's going to be important for agriculture, its related industries and labor advocates to take part in these hearings and help find the right balance between the rights of workers and the long-term viability of farming.

We're encouraged by the seemingly cooperative nature that the process is taking. New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher has been appointed as one of three members of the wage board, and the Farm Bureau points out that the Department of Labor agreed with its suggestion to hold hearings in areas that provide easier access for farmers to attend.

Having said that, The Farm Bureau also believes that the December deadline for the wage board to submit its report will result in an incomplete picture of the potential impact of lowering the overtime threshold.

"It will take data from multiple growing seasons to appropriately evaluate the economic realities and labor challenges facing New York agriculture as a result of the new overtime threshold implemented only weeks ago. And until that can happen, it should not be lowered," the Farm Bureau said in a statement.

We agree that relying on feedback from just the first four months of the year won't be enough for the Department of Labor to be able to make a decision based on complete and accurate information, so these springtime hearings should be followed up by another round of feedback-gathering closer to the end of the year.

In the meantime, we encourage anyone with an opinion on the matter to speak up. The closest hearing for Cayuga County residents will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, March 13 at Storer Auditorium at Onondaga Community College. Attendees are encouraged to preregister online.

The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Michelle Bowers, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.


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