WNY farmers, politicians say Farm Workers Bill will have consequences

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EDEN, N.Y. (WIVB-TV) – Governor Andrew Cuomo calls the Farm Workers Bill, signed Wednesday, a win for social justice because the law will provide farm workers with protections that already existed in other industries.

But Upstate and Western New York farmers say farming isn’t like other industries and that the new law fails to recognize that.

In southern Erie County, Amos Zittel & Sons of Eden pays for its workers’ Visas at about $1,000 per person and a wage of $13.25 per hour.

“We pay their transportation to and from Mexico. We guarantee 75 percent of their wages for the season, regardless of whether the crop is successful or not,” said Dennis Brawdy, a partner at Zittel’s. “And we have to provide them with free housing while they’re here. So the notion that we were somehow underpaying or abusing workers is kind of offensive to us.”

The Farm Workers Bill, signed by Cuomo Wednesday, gives more labor rights to farm workers come January. Workers will be eligible for unemployment and disability insurance, they will get overtime for more than 60 hours per week, they will have a mandatory 24 hour rest period, and they can join unions.

“One-hundred thousand farm workers will have better lives,” Cuomo said during a Manhattan press conference, hundreds of miles away from WNY farms.

State Senator Chris Jacobs disagrees. He says the fact that farms will have to restrict their hours and try to mitigate overtime costs may affect if workers choose to come back.

“These migrant workers come here to work a lot of hours. And if they can’t get those hours, they’re going to go to a different state,” Jacobs said.

Brawdy said local farms can’t simply raise their prices to overcome. He says if they did that, New York farms couldn’t compete with growing regions like New Jersey, Ohio, Canada, and Mexico. He says they may also need to hire more workers due to the limited work week.

“These are all costs we’re going to have to eat at the end of the day,” Brawdy said.

If this was a federal law, Brawdy said farms across the country would be on a level playing field, and in that case, consumers might feel the cost.

Instead, he says, this law is forcing already struggling New York farms to narrow their revenue margins more.

“To single out New York State and make us the sacrificial lamb so somebody down in New York City can feel better about themselves doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us,” he said.

Farmers hope the 60-hour work week is manageable, but in March, a 3-member wage board could make it a 40-hour work week with required overtime beyond that.

Jacobs says if that happens, it will be on Cuomo when more farms close.

“I just think because this industry is so fragile right now, it’s going to be hard, but they will try. But to move the goal posts even farther, make it that much more difficult…then you will see even more closures,” Jacobs said.

Senator Rob Ortt also sounded off Wednesday, saying “Today’s signing of the Farmworker Labor Act marks the end of local and family farming as we currently know it in New York State.”

In a statement, Ortt wrote:

“Instead of choosing to sign the Farmworker Labor Act in a rural upstate community, Gov. Cuomo chose a Manhattan newsroom as his backdrop, surrounded by legislators from Manhattan and Queens. If this legislation was so beneficial to those in the farming community, Gov. Cuomo and the bill’s sponsors should have had the courage to sign this legislation on a farm upstate. The fact they could not find a farm to host them speaks volumes. Not only will these new regulations drive hundreds of small, family-owned farms out of business, but they will also drive jobs and hard-working employees out of our state. With New York State farm closure rates already triple the national average, support of these overbearing and industry-killing regulations by New York Democrats further displays their disconnect from the upstate communities tasked with feeding their regressive New York City base.”

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