The good news about the new farm labor bill is that its backers, like state Sen. Jessica Ramos, a Democrat from Queens, have been traveling around the state and talking with various constituencies — farmers, in particular — that will be affected by the bill.
Farm workers are exempt from various provisions of the federal wage and hour laws, such as the requirement that overtime be paid for any hours worked over 40 per week. Sen. Ramos’ bill actually goes further than including farm workers in the federal law, however. It would require the payment of overtime after a worker puts in 8 hours in a day.
That sort of provision is insensitive to the special conditions farmers face when trying to run their businesses. The weather doesn’t have a schedule, and crops don’t ripen by the clock. Sometimes, because of the weather, farmers have little or no work that can be done. Other times — when the sun is shining, when the fruit is ripe — a lot has to be done quickly.
Any farm labor bill should take these special circumstances into account. Making the overtime requirements more onerous for farmers than other employers, as this bill does, is misguided.
We don’t oppose every aspect of the bill, however. It also would require farmers to grant their workers at least one day of rest every week, preferably on the day when the workers attend religious services (if they do that). That seems reasonable and humane. Everyone should be able to rest at least one day a week, and no one should be kept from religious observances by their job.
Also, the bill would require that farmers carry workers compensation and unemployment insurance on their employees. Advocates for farmers say many of them already do participate in these programs, but it’s reasonable to ask that all farmers who have employees take part.
Farm work is dangerous, and it would be unfair to ask a worker hurt on the job to bear all the expenses of that injury.
Even as we protect the rights of farm workers, we have to also protect our farmers’ ability to make a living. We can’t surrender farms to the whims of capitalism and shrug when they go broke, because the diversity, quality and availability of food is a critical national interest.
For the same reason, the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrant labor has been shortsighted. Local farmers have told us over and over they cannot find the workers they need locally. Federal officials should be working to develop visa programs that meet farmers’ needs, instead of making their lives more difficult through aggressive pursuit of workers in the country illegally.
Sen. Ramos has said she wants to level the playing field, but labor law has long acknowledged the diversity of the circumstances of employment. We aren’t advocating for the exploitation of farm workers but for the unique challenges faced by farmers to be reflected in the law.