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WNY GOP members of state legislature urge Wage Board not to lower farm OT threshold

State Senate Republican and Minority Leader Robert Ortt (R–North Tonawanda) leads a news conference Thursday at Toussaint Farms in Medina. Fellow GOP state legislatorr joining him (left to right) are Assemblymember Stephen Hawley, Sen. Edward Rath, Assemblymember Angelo Morinello, Assemblymember Mike Norri and Sen. George Borrello.
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State Senate Republican and Minority Leader Robert Ortt (R–North Tonawanda) leads a news conference Thursday at Toussaint Farms in Medina. Fellow GOP state legislatorr joining him (left to right) are Assemblymember Stephen Hawley, Sen. Edward Rath, Assemblymember Angelo Morinello, Assemblymember Mike Norri and Sen. George Borrello.

Several Western New York Republican state legislators have united to urge the Hochul administration and New York State Farm Laborers Wage Board to reject a proposed change to the existing farm worker overtime threshold, saying it would devastate what they call the state’s largest economic engine.

Unlike other industries, workers on farms do not receive overtime until they work beyond 60 hours in a week. Farm owners typically cap their scheduled hours for workers at 60 hours. Seasonal and migrant laborers who hold these jobs tend to work up to 60 hours.

In 2019, legislation called for the formation of the Wage Board, which would hear input before issuing its decision on whether to lower the overtime threshold to 40 hours per week. The board was made up three members: New York Farm Bureau president David Fisher, former New York AFL-CIO president Denis Hughes and now former Buffalo Urban League president Brenda McDuffie. They held several hearings during 2020 and, according to an order by State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, were supposed to reach a decision by mid-December 2021.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Reardon announced she would reconvene the board, which resumed hearings in January. The first was held Jan. 4. Two more are scheduled later this month.

Supporters of the lower threshold argue it’s a matter of worker dignity and rights. Those supporters include the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Opponents of change, however, say farm owners and farm workers have an understanding about the current model. Lowering the threshold, they say, would lead many laborers to find work in other states that still offer the 60-hour limit. New York farms, they argue, would then be forced to pass along their extra expenses to the consumer.

“If it costs them double what it costs someone else in a different state or different country, to grow that same tomato, or that same apple or produce, that same gallon of milk, then they either have to eat that cost, or it's not their product on the shelves at Wegmans, or on the shelves wherever,” said state Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt. “I think most New Yorkers would agree that that's not what we should be doing.”

Ortt joined several Western New York Republican state legislators in Medina Thursday to urge the board to leave things alone. State Sen. George Borrello stated that the state has gone to lengths to promote locally-grown produce in local supermarkets and grocery stores. He warned against making any moves that he suggests would disrupt the in-state supply chain.

“We saw how that worked out in the pandemic. We had empty store shelves, we had people at food banks that were standing in line for hours, and then sorry, we're out of food. That's why we worked so hard to make this Nourish New York program permanent, because we know how important and how fragile our food supply chain is,” Borrello said. “And now, to satisfy radical special interests based in New York City, we're threatening not only the livelihoods of our farmers, but the food security of every single New Yorker.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul, in her State of the State Address, introduced proposals intended to protect New York farms. They include doubling the Farm Workforce Retention Tax Credit, increasing the investment tax credit, and creating a new farm overtime tax credit.

GOP lawmakers gathered Thursday suggest the better idea would be to leave the labor model as it is.

“What New York State needs to do, is it needs to listen,” said state Sen. Edward Rath. “It needs to pay attention to the subject matter experts, to our farmers who have said you cannot lower this threshold, because we might be in a situation where we would be going out of business, potentially.”

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.