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Farmworkers, owners debate push for stronger labor rules

State Sen. Rachel May / Twitter

Farm owners on Thursday warned New York State lawmakers that legislation that would give workers the right to organize to demand better wages and conditions could devastate New York’s agricultural economy.

Several farm owners and the leaders of agricultural trade organizations urged lawmakers to defeat the so-called Farmworker Fair Labor Practice Act during a state Senate hearing in Morrisville.

Farmworkers and their advocates also testified, sharing stories of long hours, low wages and sometimes dangerous conditions. Under current law, agricultural workers are not allowed to unionize.

The Farmworker Fair Labor Practice Act would eliminate a provision in state law that prohibits agricultural workers from unionizing. It would also extend worker compensation benefits to all types of farms, guarantee workers at least one day off a week and require employers to pay overtime when a laborer works more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

While similar measures have been discussed for years, supporters are more confident this year after Democrats won a majority of seats in the state Senate, giving them control of it and the Assembly. A vote has not been scheduled but could come before lawmakers adjourn in June.

Farm owners told lawmakers that the act would force them to cut back on employment. A strike at a busy time of year, they said, would be devastating, while raising prices to pay for added labor costs would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

"This additional burden would possibly put us out of business," said Judi Whittaker, part owner of a Broome County dairy farm. Whittaker said her farm already pays for workers’ housing — a benefit that might have to be reduced if her farm’s labor costs go up.

Farmworkers and their supporters, however, argued that they’re entitled to the same benefits and rights given in other industries. They discounted dire predictions of shuttered farms, noting that the nation’s top agricultural state already allows farmworkers to unionize.

"California has protected farmworkers much better than New York State and they have a rather robust agricultural industry," said Herb Engman, a former Ithaca town supervisor who led a program for migrant farm workers at Cornell University. "When does the economic prosperity of one person justify the exploitation of another?"

Additional hearings are planned Friday on Long Island and May 2 in Sullivan County.

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