ALBANY (New York) TIMES-UNION
February 6, 2017
Senators press for long-stalled farmworkers labor rights bill
By Matthew Hamilton
Boris Martinez typically works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day during the summer without a day off.
A Long Island farmworker and native Spanish speaker, Martinez says it doesn’t matter if he’s sick or an important matter to attend to “our bosses only care that we produce for them.”
Martinez, who appeared in Albany on Monday to share his experiences, is among those pushing for a long-stalled Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, an onibus bill that would give farmworkers a number of labor protections. The legislation would provide, among other things, the right for farmworkers to collectively bargain, a day of rest for farmworkers, overtime pay and certain minimum wage protections.
Though the legislation has passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly in years past, it lacks key sponsorship from Senate Majority Republicans that would signal it is ready for passage in that house of the Legislature (it hasn’t come up for a vote in previous years, either).
The bill, now prime-sponsored by members of the Independent Democratic Conference (a band of Democrats in the Senate who have formed a majority coalition with the Republicans), comes up again in 2017 at an interesting time politically. On Monday, the national political winds swirling around immigration policy came up more than once.
“You have a Donald Trump who’s really castigating immigrants,” state Sen. Jose Peralta, D-Queens, said. “Now is a time for us to step up and be that front line of protection.”
Though the legislation in question is geared toward labor, the issue of migrant farmworkers being boxed out of certain state labor protections has been at the fore of the debate over this bill. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state last year on behalf of a Spanish-speaking North Country dairy worker who claimed he was fired after attempting to organize fellow employees.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo immediately said his administration would not defend against the suit in court. The New York Farm Bureau was granted intervenor status as the defendant in the case, and is awaiting a judge’s ruling on a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
In the meantime, the senators are pressing for a law because, as Peralta put it, “we don’t want any questions unanswered, and by codifying, it’s in the statute and we know there are no questions. Now we get to enforce it.”
Farmers remain vehemently opposed to the legislation.
Farm Credit East, a financial services provider for Northeastern farmers, issued a report in November looking at just the overtime pay implications of the legislation. It projected that farm net income would drop by 45.4 percent once a $12.50 minimum wage is fully phased-in by 2021 and if farmers are required to provide overtime pay. That equates to a 2.5 billion decline in gross farm sales, leading to a “significant” decline in agriculture sector employment statewide.
“Particularly urban lawmakers like to speak in generalities about the hardships facing farmworkers when farmers in reality are providing them with opportunities, they’re providing them with jobs well above the minimum wage in most instances,” New York Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman said, adding that workers often are given housing and other amenities as well. “I think it’s a fallacy that farmworkers are not treated well.”