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Farm owners fear change in overtime rules due in December

WBFO File Photo
Jim Bittner checks one of the cherry trees at Bittner Singer Orchards in Appleton, New York

The State Labor Department’s Farm Laborers Wage Board is expected to meet again by mid-December, and ponder lowering an hours-per-week threshold. Farm owners fear that may lead many of their seasonal employees to find work with competitors in other states.

The three-person wage board held several public hearings in 2020 to collect information but did not take action on lowering the current 60-hour threshold, after which farm workers would earn overtime. Some have pushed for the board to lower the threshold to 40 hours, the same limit as for other hourly employees.

Under an order issued in February by New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, the 60-hour threshold would remain in effect for one more year, giving the board time to reconvene late this year and resume their task.

Farm owners typically set limits on staff hours, cutting them off at 60 hours to avoid paying time and a half. Jim Bittner of Bittner Singer Orchard in Niagara County says farm owners and their seasonal employees have become accustomed to a 60-hour work week, and workers seek getting as many hours as possible during a limited growing season.

If the state panel acts to lower the threshold, farms in turns will respond by cutting work hours. Bittner suggests many employees wouldn’t take that well.

“When I tell my employees that's what's going to happen, they get very upset, especially the seasonal ones that are here just for a few months or half of the year,” he said. “Their goal is to work as many hours during that period as they possibly can, and they don't want to be cut back on hours. And I would be forced to.”

Proponents of a lowered threshold include organized labor leaders and the New York Civil Liberties Union, the latter of which argued late last year that it’s an issue of farm workers’ dignity.

Bittner, meanwhile, says many who migrate to New York for seasonal farm work may instead seek more hours in other states, and hurt New York State’s ability to compete against other states.

“That is our biggest concern right now, that if we if they lowered the threshold, and it we have to assume that employers for the most part will make a policy that we're going to hold the threshold, nobody's going to work more than whatever it is. We're going to have workers that just aren't going to want to work in New York State,” Bittner said.

WBFO forwarded a message to David Fisher, state board president of the New York Farm Bureau and one of the three wage board panelists, in an attempt to learn if a meeting has been scheduled. The message was not returned as of Friday evening.