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Senator O'Mara's weekly column - “Will NY regulate more farms out of business?”

New York’s farmers and the agricultural industry as a whole have been hard hit over the past year.
Despite many burdens weighing on farm families, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democrat majorities of the state Legislature piled on a new law last June with serious consequences in the months ahead. The law’s opponents -- count me firmly among them -- warn that it could produce a nightmare of a ripple effect.
Known as the “Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act,” the law took effect on January 1 and, among other provisions, it grants collective bargaining rights, overtime pay, paid family leave and unemployment benefits to farm laborers. Since the dawn of labor laws, farm labor has been treated differently than other employment because, plain and simple, it is different. Farms "have to make hay while the sun is shining." It's seasonal and requires planting, fertilizing, pesticide application, pruning and harvesting, all of which are driven by Mother Nature, not by a nine-to-five, five-day workweek.

Governor Cuomo has already proposed changes to ease cost increases on farms, a move that by itself signals trouble ahead. How hard will the governor push for the changes? Will the Legislature’s progressives ever accept them? These are key questions without answers.

What we do know is that many farmers view the law as a threat. According to one recent report, farm labor costs in New York State increased 40 percent over the past decade. Total farm labor costs are at least 63 percent of net cash farm income in New York, compared to 36 percent nationally.  

One of the law’s most onerous provisions created a three-member Farm Laborers Wage Board that is supposed to hold the first of at least three public hearings by March 1. Following hearings, this wage board is empowered to change the law. I was especially critical of this action to grant such far-reaching authority to an unelected, unaccountable body.

Yes, the New York Farm Bureau is represented on the board. It is fundamentally important to have farming’s voice directly involved. However, the Farm Bureau’s voice (and vote) can be easily overridden by the board’s other two members -- the state’s largest labor union, the AFL-CIO, and an appointee by the governor’s Labor Department.  

The fear, which I stressed during debate on the Senate floor before voting no, is that this board will move quickly to revise the act in ways that will increase farmworkers’ pay at the great expense of farmers.

Farm Bureau President David Fischer warns that the March public hearing is far too early to be helpful in assessing the law’s impact.

“Keep in mind, the first hearing will happen before the first crops are even in the ground,” he said recently. “It will be incredibly difficult to judge in a significant way how farms and their employees are managing schedules and dealing with the financial burdens just two months into the year.”

The Farm Bureau wants the board to have adequate time, resources and appropriate data to assess the law’s full impact before recommending changes. I am skeptical, to put it mildly.  

It remains imperative for upstate legislators, for whom the farm economy is a foundation of communities we represent, to keep close watch on a wage board now holding so many farmers’ futures in its hands.

We cannot risk the state mandating and regulating more farms out of business – and that is exactly what’s at stake here.

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