Victory on overtime for New York farmworkers

After a long and hard struggle, farmworkers in New York State recently won the right to overtime pay after a 40-hour workweek. There is still, however, a long path to economic fairness for these critically important workers.

Without a doubt, the overtime pay increase is a substantial victory that was a long time coming. Once fully phased in, it will give farm laborers a raise of $34 to $95 per week

Overtime pay will also nudge farm owners onto the economic high road, as Immigration Research Initiative and Economic Policy Institute have argued. By raising wages, it will reduce turnover and save significantly on recruiting and training costs. Where farm owners have the option, it will also nudge them toward more effective use of work time and investments in equipment that increase productivity, making farming in New York more sustainable in the long run. 

Just as important, this victory, which took place on September 30, is a sign of the growing power of New York State’s farmworkers. Two years ago, farmworkers won the right to join together in labor unions, the same right that nearly all other New York workers have had for decades. They also won the right to overtime pay after 60 hours a week: still far too high, but far better than complete exclusion, and a milestone on the way to a 40-hour overtime threshold.

Farmworkers will still have to wait some time before they see the full benefits of this victory. 

New York’s overtime threshold will be reduced over the course of 10 years, reaching the 40-hour mark in 2032. The powerful NY Farm Bureau fought strenuously against this change, even making outlandish claims—without evidence—that overtime pay after 40 hours for farmworkers would lead to a collapse of New York’s agricultural industry, with farms forced to shut down. The Farm Bureau did this even though the state government will cover the costs of overtime pay by providing a tax credit for 100% of the added cost, plus extra for implementation. 

Still, this is a big win for New York’s farmworkers. New York joins California, Oregon, and Washington as the only states that are now phasing in a 40-hour per week threshold for overtime pay for farmworkers. Four other states have laws requiring overtime pay but with a higher hourly threshold and/or additional loopholes that benefit employers:

  • Hawaii’s law requires overtime pay for farmworkers after 48 hours, but a provision allows many employers (if not most) to avoid paying it for much of the year;
  • Minnesota requires overtime pay after 48 hours, but farmworkers don’t receive it if they earn more than a certain amount per week;
  • Colorado began requiring overtime pay after 60 hours per week just this year, which will gradually decrease to 48 hours in 2025, with a large exception for “highly seasonal” farm employers; 
  • Maryland requires overtime pay for farmworkers but only after 60 hours per week.

Of these, only California currently has a 40-hour threshold, which went into effect in 2022 for larger employers, while smaller employers are being incrementally phased in until 2025 (See this interactive map on overtime pay from Farmworker Justice for more details). 

The New York coalition behind both the push for labor organizing rights in 2019 and the 40-hour overtime threshold this year was led by farmworkers and a broad range of labor, community, religious, and advocacy organizations over the course of more than two decades. The coalition includes Alianza Agricola, the Worker Center of Central New York, the Worker Justice Center of New York, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the United Food and Commercial Workers, Rural and Migrant Ministry, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Immigration Coalition, and the Hispanic Federation. Immigration Research Initiative, Economic Policy Institute, the National Employment Law Center, and a few scholars on farm labor provide research and policy support to the coalition. 

The increasing worker power is also leading to successful unionization efforts. Pindar Vineyards on Long Island formed a union affiliated with RWDSU Local 338, as did workers in the nascent cannabis industry spanning the supply chain from cultivation to dispensaries. Three other Long Island units have also earned recognition, including Warner and Satur Farms, represented by UFCW Local 888, and Palmer and Paumanok Vineyards, represented by RWDSU Local 338. More union organizing is likely to follow. 

Union organizing is always a challenge in the agricultural sector, but the reason the fight must begin with the state legislature is rooted in racist policy. In the 1930s, when key pieces of modern labor law were put into place, the majority of Black workers in the South were either farm laborers or domestic workers. The New Deal Era legislation that guarantees organizing rights and overtime to most private-sector workers specifically excluded domestic workers and farmworkers to appease southern Dixiecrat lawmakers intent on maintaining economic white supremacy and blocking Black-led and multiracial worker organizing.

Today, farmworkers and domestic workers are still excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, the two main laws that protect the right to join and form unions and the right to fair wage and hour standards, respectively. The vast majority of today’s farmworkers are immigrants, hailing overwhelmingly from Mexico and Central America. Significant shares of domestic workers today are Black and Latina women, as well as immigrants.

While some Democratic lawmakers have proposed legislation to end this injustice, it lacks sufficient support in Congress to become law. However, states can enact legislation to reverse these exclusions, as California and New York have now done for farmworkers. New York’s move toward a 40-hour overtime threshold for farmworkers is another step in the right direction that’s worthy of celebration—hopefully, it will spur similar efforts in other states.