New York Legislature Passes Sweeping Farm Labor Regulations

Published August 19, 2019

A new law in New York substantially changes labor policy toward farms in the state.

Agricultural workers are not covered by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, leaving the states to decide whether and how to regulate worker-management issues in the farming sector. New York’s new law requires farms to allow workers to engage in collective bargaining rights and imposes overtime pay requirements and eligibility for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the Farm Workers Fair Practices Act into law on July 17.

“With the passage of this legislation, we will help ensure every farm worker the overtime pay and fair working conditions they deserve,” Cuomo said in a June 19 statement. “The constitutional principles of equality, fairness and due process should apply to all of us.”

Most of the provisions of the new law are slated go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

‘Perfect Storm for Agriculture’

The new law will raise labor costs for farmers, says Elizabeth Wolters, deputy director of public policy at the New York Farm Bureau.

“The legislation will have a profound financial impact on farmers who are already struggling to do business in a high-cost state,” said Wolters. “Add to this extremely low commodity prices and global competition, and it becomes a perfect storm for agriculture,” Wolters said.

No-Strike Measure

New Yorkers have been debating the inclusion of farm workers under state labor laws for decades. A provision of the state Employment Relations Act prohibiting farm workers from collective bargaining was ruled unconstitutional by a state appellate court on May 23.

An earlier version of the bill would have given farm workers the right to strike. That provision was replaced with a no-strike clause to prevent worker shortages during critical growing periods.

Farm workers will have the right to unionize through a “card-check” system instead of secret-ballot elections, making it easier to organize workers.

“The final bill is admittedly better than the original legislation that we have fought for years,” Wolters said. “However, farmers and farm workers will still suffer the consequences.”

Overtime Work Rules

Grow NY Farms, a coalition that includes the New York Farm Bureau and the New York Apple Association, said it had serious concerns about some of the law’s provisions and urged legislators to vote against the bill in a June 19 statement.

The law includes a transitional provision requiring farm owners to pay time-and-a-half for those working more than 60 hours in a week in 2020, and for more than 40 hours in 2021 and thereafter. Workers will have to be paid overtime if they work a seventh day in a week.

This will “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,” Grow NY Farms’ statement said.

To avoid paying overtime, farm owners will have to limit the number of days employees can work, says Grow NY Farms.

“Farmers will be forced to impose a mandatory day of rest, thus decreasing the number of hours farm workers would like to work,” the statement said. “Farm workers will choose to seek a second agricultural job or pursue opportunities in other states.”

Property Rights Concerns

Labor laws meant for industrial workers don’t fit the conditions of agricultural work, says Daren Bakst, a senior research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation.

“The bill is like putting a round peg into a square hole,” Bakst said. “Farmers shouldn’t receive favoritism, but that doesn’t mean legislators should ignore the practical problems of applying many of these labor policies to farms.”

The law allows union officials to go on farms to organize, which isn’t allowed in factories under NLRB. This provision could infringe on farmers’ property rights, says Bakst.

“One issue of particular concern is the requirement allowing organizers to have access to farms so they can talk to employees,” Bakst said. “On the surface, that could have significant property rights implications.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.