Overtime pay will help, not hurt, New York’s farms

This op-ed was originally published in the Times Union

Farm workers have long demanded overtime pay that kicks in after working 40 hours a week, just like other workers get. This year’s state budget included—at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s urging—a subsidy that will compensate farm owners for 100 percent of the cost of paying overtime, plus a little more to cover whatever extra is involved. Yet, farm owners are still resisting.

They’re wrong to do so.

Farm labor is hard work that sometimes requires very long hours. When it does, workers deserve to be paid fairly for their time. The reason a 40-hour overtime threshold is not already the law should make us wince: When the federal law that governs overtime pay was written in the 1930s, it excluded two job categories that were overwhelmingly held by African Americans—farm laborers and domestic workers.

Farmers may be anxious about whether they can pay overtime and stay afloat. But, the record shows that they should have more confidence in their own ability to be good managers. Overtime pay has worked out fine for farm owners in other states. And in the long run it will make New York farm businesses healthier and the farm economy stronger.

California is the nation’s largest and most important farm state. In the absence of federal action, it is also the state that started implementing overtime for farm workers first. In 2019, California started a four-year phase-in to a 40-hour overtime threshold (six years for small farms). Overtime pay has not corresponded with negative impacts or shocks to the farm economy.

In fact, since the implementation of overtime, there have been no dramatic changes either in average weekly hours worked or total wages paid by farmers. And, the total number of farms operating in California has remained steady. None of these are indicators of an industry on the precipice of collapse because of overpaid farm workers.

How do farm owners accommodate paying higher weekly wages when they ask workers to do overtime? There is, of course, some expense. But, it’s not a dollar-for-dollar cost, so the impact is modest. The reason is increased productivity.

As we have seen in many other instances, when employers are required to pay higher wages, they make a bigger effort to increase the efficiency of the workplace. We’ve seen this when the minimum wage has been increased. We’ve seen it in unionized businesses. And we’ve seen it already on New York’s farms when—after a farmworkers’ rights bill was passed—farm owners were required to pay overtime. Currently farm owners have to pay overtime after 60 hours.

What does an increase in productivity on farms look like?

Farm owners may invest in equipment that makes work easier and faster for workers. They may also find ways to organize work that is more effective. Paying overtime provides a real incentive for that. And, overtime pay will reduce the cost of recruitment and training, because it will reduce turnover.

Earlier this month the state’s Farm Labor Wage Board recommended that New York reduce the overtime threshold for farm workers from 60 hours a week to 40 over the course of 10 years. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon now must decide whether to accept that recommendation. We hope that they will do just that.

Fighting to compete based on low wages and low investment in modernizing farming techniques is a losing battle for New York. Focusing on higher productivity and fair labor standards points to a brighter future for the entire farm sector: farm workers, farm owners, the communities they live in, and all of us who enjoy local produce.