Advocates and elected officials celebrate Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act

Stephon Johnson | 6/27/2019, 11:49 a.m.
New York State farmworkers now have the right to unionize and receive overtime pay. Legislation S.6578/A.8419, sponsored by New York ...
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New York State farmworkers now have the right to unionize and receive overtime pay. Legislation S.6578/A.8419, sponsored by New York Sen. Jessica Ramos and New York State Assembly Member Catherine Nolan, also addressed working conditions.

The Fair Labor Practices Act also provides unemployment insurance, 24 consecutive hours of rest each week, and a sanitary code for all farm and food processing labor camps intended to house farm laborers.

Labor Committee Chair Ramos said that New York had just corrected a historic injustice.

“The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act has lingered in this body for 20 years, with seven sponsors on both sides of the aisle,” Ramos stated. “I am proud today to be the 8th and last sponsor of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. I have traveled to seven counties in New York, visited 14 farms, talked to countless farmworkers, and held three hearings on this bill. There are 80 to 100,000 farmworkers that are the backbone of New York’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry.”

The bill requires farmers to pay laborers overtime pay if they work more than 60 hours in a week, but sets a path to reduce the threshold to 40 hours in the future. Workers would also be eligible for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation benefits.

“Here in the Assembly Majority we pride ourselves on standing up for the rights of the hard working men and women across New York,” stated New York Sate Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. “Farmworkers deserve proper protections for the physically taxing, sometimes dangerous work they do that fuels our agricultural sector and puts food on our tables. They are vital to keeping New York’s farms working and play a pivotal role in the health and well-being of our residents.”

The bill also expands unemployment insurance coverage to all farm workers and eliminates the requirement that mandates workers to make unemployment contributions for farm labor performed by seasons H-2A via workers who can’t collect the benefits. It also expands eligibility for workers’ compensation coverage, establishes eligibility for disability benefits and requires all employers to post notices about workers’ compensation requirements in English and Spanish.

Elected officials sought to correct a wrong. New York State’s 1930s labor laws excluded farmworkers and prevented them from organizing and negotiating for better wages and working conditions. In May, an appeal court ruled that exclusion unconstitutional.

But all aren’t celebrating. Famers pushed for the bill to be revised. However, once the revision passed, the farmers said they had reservations about the revised bill, too. One of the details the farmers oppose is a section of the bill that requires overtime pay if a worker voluntarily declines the option to take a day off each week.

“This provision would inevitably force a 60-hour work week to be applied over six days and will not meet the legislative intent of providing reasonable and predictable wages, especially when weather patterns often dictate work schedules,” read a statement from Grow NY Farms, a pro-farmer advocacy group.

New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said that a cultural anniversary made the passing of the bill more significant.

“It is fitting that today, on Juneteenth, legislators are finally delivering a measure of justice to farmworkers more than 80 years after a Jim Crow-era law denied them basic rights granted to everyone else,” said Lieberman in a statement. “The workers on whom we depend for the food on our tables must be treated humanely and with dignity, like any other hardworking New Yorker. That includes the right to organize, a day of rest, overtime pay, and more. Farmworkers have had to wait decades, and they shouldn’t have to wait a day longer for the governor to sign this historic reform.”