ELBRIDGE — A coalition of local farmers, laborers and elected officials gathered at Half Full Dairy in Elbridge on Aug. 18 to urge the New York State Wage Board to maintain the overtime threshold of 60 hours per week as set out in the Farm Laborer Fair Labor Practices Act (FLFLPA) of 2019.
The NYS Department of Labor’s Farm Laborers Wage Board plans to revisit the overtime threshold later this year and is weighing the option of lowering it to 40 hours. The board ruled Dec. 31, 2020, to maintain the 60-hour threshold and reconvene in November 2021.
According to the Grow NY Farms Coalition— whose members include the New York Farm Bureau, New York State Vegetable Growers Association, Northeast Dairy Producers Association, Inc., New York Apple Association, and Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance — lowering the overtime threshold to 40 hours would have devastating economic consequences for area agriculture and workers alike.
“While proponents of a 40-hour work week claim to fight for the workers, farmworkers will be the ones to lose out as their hours will surely be cut or jobs could be eliminated,” Eric Ooms, dairy farmer and vice president of New York Farm Bureau, said in a statement about the campaign to keep the 60-hour threshold.
A.J. Wormuth and his family own Half Full Dairy, the former Hourigan farm. The Wormuths employ 32 people to milk and care for their herd of 2,840 cows across four locations in Onondaga and Cayuga counties.
“People want to work. They want to earn as much money as they can and if they lower the threshold down from a business standpoint we can’t [afford] all that overtime because we don’t set our price,” Wormuth said.
Wormuth and Baldwinsville-based fruit and vegetable grower Tony Emmi said the 60-hour threshold has been a challenge.
“It’s been very difficult especially on our family members. We’re working close to 80, 90 hours a week just to keep up with the requirements of the law,” Emmi said.
Many farmers, Wormuth said, have implemented technology to reduce their workforce needs, such as robotic milking machines, cameras and wearable monitors for cows who are getting ready to calve.
Marcus Richards, owner of Elmer Richards & Sons Farm in Skaneateles, said maintaining the 60-hour threshold keeps NYS farms competitive with other states and countries. Keeping small farms in business is vital to the state’s larger economy.
“Most of these businesses support local equipment dealers, hardware stores. The economic multiplier of dairy in particular is a very large number,” Richards said. “Every dollar that a dairy brings in … it goes back into the local community.”
Employees as well as farmers voiced their support of keeping the 60-hour threshold. Otto, one of Wormuth’s employees, relies on his income to support his wife and four children here in the United States as well as relatives back in Guatemala. Otto asked Eagle Newspapers not to use his last name.
“What I’m getting right now, that’s enough to give to my family what they need,” he said. “I’m the one helping them over there.”
The reduction of the overtime threshold in 2019 caused some friction among employees vying for the most hours, Otto said. Before FLFLPA, workers could more easily swap shifts or cover for each other. Now, Wormuth said, he has to play referee to schedule conflicts.
“It’s created a management conflict where there doesn’t need to be one and where there wasn’t one,” Wormuth said.
Otto said he enjoys his job and has a good relationship with the Wormuths, but some of his friends and relatives who work in agriculture have not been as fortunate. They have told him some employers are only scheduling workers for 50 to 55 hours each week to avoid having to pay overtime.
Charlie Dewitt, the herdsman for Half Full Dairy, said the Wormuths have been generous and fair in navigating the changes FLFLPA brought in 2019, but he has heard of other farmers taking advantage of the overtime exemption for salaried workers.
“Other dairies, they would push you to work more hours and still get the same money,” Dewitt said.
While the 60-hour threshold took some adjustment, Wormuth said it is “workable on both sides.”
Despite the difficulties, the 60-hour threshold has had some upsides. It has made it easier for workers to take time off.
“We want to have a business where people can feel like they can take time off,” Wormuth said. ““Not everybody loves it, but it’s working.”
“So far, most of the guys are okay with 60 hours,” Emmi said. “If it goes below that, I think we’re going to suffer. We might have to look at an exit strategy.”
Assemblyman John Lemondes (126th District) owns Elly’s Acres, a sheep farm in Jamesville. He said he empathizes with farmers like Emmi, Richards and Wormuth.
“We are here not just for you but with you. I feel this pain every single day. My wife does, my children do,” Lemondes said. “We know at the grassroots level — you can’t get any lower than that — what the impacts of these things cause to our family farms. There’s a lot at risk here with respect to our food production, our security and our ability to transact business.”
Assemblyman Al Stirpe (127th District) said the Assembly’s agriculture committee is working on legislation to improve labor laws for both workers and farmers.
“There will be a lot of noise … in the assembly around this issue. Our chair of agriculture, Donna Lupardo, is all over this already,” Stirpe said. “I’m pretty sure that before the end of the next session there’s going to be some bills passed.”
To learn more about the Farm Laborer Fair Practices Act and the overtime threshold, visit agworkforce.cals.cornell.edu/regulations/2019-new-york-flflpa-labor-law-changes/ or dol.ny.gov/farm-laborers-fair-labor-practices-act/.