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State panel: Make overtime pay easier for farmworkers

Imran Ansari
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Monday, January 31, 2022

This article was written by James Madore at Newsday.

A state panel has recommended gradually easing the overtime rule for farmworkers until the threshold for time-and-a-half pay, now 60 hours per week, is lowered to 40 hours.

The Farm Laborers Wage Board has proposed the OT threshold be reduced by four hours every two years, starting on Jan. 1, 2024, until the 40-hour level is reached on Jan. 1, 2032.

Two of the three board members said the new overtime rule would balance the needs of farm employees to earn more and have days of rest but give farmers time to adjust to the new wage scheme.

The recommendation will be submitted to state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon for final approval.

"We’ve tried to make the best situation for all involved," board chairwoman Brenda McDuffie said during the virtual meeting on Friday.

She introduced and voted for the three resolutions making it easier for farmworkers to earn time-and-a-half pay. Also, voting "yea" was board member Denis Hughes, former president of the state AFL-CIO, a union umbrella group.

Hughes had called for reducing the OT threshold in late 2020 but was outvoted by McDuffie, retired CEO of the Buffalo Urban League, and board member David Fisher, president of the New York Farm Bureau. The pair cited the coronavirus-induced recession as a compelling reason to postpone making a decision.

The labor commissioner agreed and ordered the wage board to reconvene on the issue late last year.

After prevailing in Friday’s votes, Hughes said, "We have managed change in a way that gives everybody an opportunity to participate. This is a compromise," he said.

Fisher disagreed, saying the wage board should have first reviewed the hours of testimony given in four public hearings. The final hearing ended 45 minutes before Friday’s board votes.

Fisher, who is a dairy farmer from upstate Madrid, predicted that farmers would keep workers’ hours within the OT threshold. The result, he said, will be that workers’ wages decline.

Farm employees first became eligible for time-and-a-half pay after 60 hours per week about two years ago. Until then, there was no overtime pay.

During Friday’s hearing, Kareem Massoud, whose family owns Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, urged the wage board not to lower the overtime threshold.

"No one is forcing [agricultural] workers to work more hours than they want to," he said. "Many of them have been working with us for years … long before the overtime rule went into effect and long before the minimum wage had gone up significantly."

On Long Island, the state minimum wage increased to $15 per hour in December.

Martir Zambrano Diaz, an employee of Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, said he supports lowering the OT threshold to 40 hours. "We want our work to be valued...We need the overtime pay because everything is very expensive in this country," he said.