FORT EDWARD — Most Washington County supervisors oppose the 2019 New York Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, currently in committee in both the state Assembly and Senate, because they say it puts county farms at risk.
And during Friday’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting in Fort Edward, county lawmakers passed a resolution stating their opposition to the bill designed to give farm workers several workplace protections, including the right to join a union. Fort Edward Supervisor Terry Middleton dissented.
“Although I am a firm believer in collective bargaining, this bill is in committee and I don’t think it’s ready to be passed until more work is done on the bill,” said Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman before Friday’s vote. “I am opposed to it in the form it is in right now.”
As the legislation stands, the bill grants collective bargaining rights to farm laborers; requires one full day off each week; provides for overtime pay after an 8-hour work day; and adds several health and safety provisions.
“I’d like to see it stay in committee … I’d like to see more details,” said Idleman. “My concern is for the ag community, but also for those people who are working on farms, and making sure that they aren’t vulnerable, and making sure that they’re safe ... But I’d like to see more work done on the bill.”
According to the resolution, the effect of a farm labor strike could destroy an entire year’s worth of crops.
Last week, state Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, met with the owners of the family-run Ideal Dairy Farms in Hudson Falls. During the discussion, Woerner said the bill uses an industrial labor model, not a good fit for agriculture because farming deals with live animals and crops.
“I don’t think the Assembly is eager to take this up this year,” she said. “To do this right now could be detrimental to New York agriculture as a whole. This is not a path to success as it stands, and I could not support it.”
John Dickinson of Ideal Dairy Farms said he and his daughter, Crystal Grimaldi, have been to previous legislative hearings on the bill, and he believes some version of the labor law will pass this session.
Dickinson said collective bargaining is not a problem, but work stoppage could be a disaster.
“If all our workers did not want to milk our cows, we’re in trouble,” he said.
Also, his workers typically work 11- to 12-hour shifts: “We all work 12-hour days. Its just the culture, it’s a business and a lifestyle,” he said.
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Ideal Dairy employees are paid between $40,000 and $65,000 plus housing, utilities and cable, he said.
Dickinson asked Woerner to do whatever she could to help modify some sections of the bill related to work stoppage and overtime hours.
“Regarding opposition to this, I don’t want it to be seen as anti-union. It’s just that there’s some items in it that are unworkable for agriculture, one being striking,” said Jackson Supervisor Jay Skellie during Friday’s meeting. “There are other states that have union bills with no-strike clauses in them. It (striking) puts the animals in danger, it puts the crops at risk.”
Also at issue is the overtime requirement after 40 hours.
“It’s not like a factory,” said Skellie before Friday’s vote. “Its a 24-hour a day job.”
Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, agrees.
“They are working on a razor-thin margin already,” Stec said. “The challenges other businesses face, farms do too. And then they are beholden to Mother Nature … they are already teetering. This could finish some of them off.”
According to Farm Credit East in Greenwich and Friday’s resolution, overtime, combined with the rising minimum wage, would raise labor costs on New York farms by nearly $300 million and reduce net farm income by 23.4 percent.
Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce President Michael Bittel said, if the bills pass, the financial pressure of required overtime after eight hours may lead to more automation and less hours for workers if farmers are to stay in business.
“New York state competes in a national and global market,” said Skellie. “We already pay some of the highest wages, the highest taxes and are one of the most regulated of any of the other agricultural states across the country.”
As part of the resolution, supervisors are calling on state lawmakers representing the county to take the necessary steps to defeat the bill.