To the average Cattaraugus County dairy farmer, the proposed Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act being considered by the New York State Legislature is scary.
Nathan Blesy, a dairy farmer in the town of Ashford and president of the Cattaraugus County Farm Bureau said state lawmakers pushing for the bill “don’t have any agriculture in their districts and don’t understand farming.”
Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, R-Gowanda, said the bill has been introduced before, but with Democrats in control of both the Senate and Assembly, it could “sound the death knell for family farms” in the state.
The bill, sponsored by New York City Democrats Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, the bill would allow farmworkers to unionize for collective bargaining, require overtime for more than eight hours of work in a day and 40 hours a week, require a day of rest each week, and be eligible for unemployment and Workman’s Compensation.
Blesy, the Farm Bureau president, said, “You can’t have farmworkers go on strike a week before the apples need to be picked. It is a perishable commodity.”
As far as overtime, Blesy said during the harvest, farmworkers often have to work more than eight hours in a day. While the minimum wage in New York increased to $11.10 an hour on Dec. 31, 2018, it is difficult to find farmworkers for that amount, he said. “You have to pay somebody more than minimum wage in order to hire somebody. These people want to work,” he added.
“People don’t understand where their food comes from anymore,” Blesy said, calling it a “Downstate mentality.”
Blesy said the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act is “pretty scary.” The New York State Farm Bureau has lobbied against it.
“They agreed to hold hearings, which could mean we’ve got a fighting chance.” Blesy said. “It will hurt New York agriculture.”
Giglio said he’s not surprised the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act came up again after Democrats took over control of the State Senate in January. Democrats already controlled the Assembly by a wide margin.
“It’s a bad bill,” Giglio said. “It’s always been a bad bill. The Senate’s cover is that they are holding hearings to hear what’s going on.”
The first hearing will be Thursday at SUNY Morrisville in Madison County. Two other hearings will be held: Friday in Smithtown on Long Island and May 2 at SUNY Sullivan near Liberty.
Giglio said, “New York has only one growing season. In other states where they have collective bargaining for farmworkers like California and Florida they have two or three harvests. Harvest time requires more than eight hours of work. People who work that understand it.”
Giglio said he calls it the “farm death bill. This is a way of life for us. People choose this way of life. Don’t kill our number one industry.”
Sponsors “are trying to expand unionization to a business that doesn’t need it. It will impact family and small farms, not corporate agriculture. With overtime, it turns into a real problem, especially for small dairy farms that employ two or three people.”
New York Farm Bureau President David Fisher said the bill would increase farmers’ labor costs by $3oo million, a 17 percent jump. A strike by unionized farmworkers during a harvest could financially cripple famers.
“Farmers compete in a marketplace and can’t just pass along price increases and recoup their losses, especially in this difficult farm economy,” Fisher said. “This farm labor legislation will force farms out of business.”
For Dustin Bliss, who owns Bliss Dairy Co., in Freedom, the Albany bill is “going to be a gut punch for every New York farmer who employs outside labor. We’ve already been struggling for the past several years with low prices for milk, beef and grain.”
Most farmers have either lost money or broke even. When they don’t have money, it ripples through the community when farm equipment goes unsold and farmers can’t afford services and major purchases.
Bliss, who runs a 500- cow dairy and employs several farmworkers, points to high numbers of farm bankruptcies and farmer suicides and says the farm labor bill “will be another weight piling on top of our already heavy load.”
He blames labor unions for the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. “This has nothing to do with farm labor,” Bliss said. “They care nothing about farm labor. It is another way for organized labor to increase their influence in Albany.”
Bliss said he is going to the Senate hearing on Long Island on Friday with a Livingston County farmer with the intent of changing some minds. “We’re driving down early Friday morning and coming back Friday night.”
Bliss said sponsors “know nothing about agriculture. We’ve got to be able to compete. There is no difference between my milk and that produced in other states. If New York keeps putting up roadblocks to agriculture, it will go elsewhere.”
Bliss said his farmworkers want to work more than 40 hours knowing they will get a straight hourly wage, not overtime. The overtime bill for his dairy would probably exceed $150,000, 25 percent of his current payroll.
If the farm labor bill is enacted, many farmers will have to pay their workers under the table or close up shop, Bliss said.