By RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum
A business’s viability must not depend on the legally allowed exploitation of people which had originally been based on the color of their skin. That is morally indefensible.
This is why New York needs to correct the glaring injustice in New York’s agriculture industry where farmworkers are denied overtime pay after 40 hours.
Unlike most workers in the Empire State—and the rest of the country—New York’s farmworkers are currently denied overtime pay by New York law until they’ve worked 60 hours a week. This is a relic of Jim Crow-era labor laws that have historically treated farmworkers—the backbone of New York’s agriculture industry—as second-class workers. But with the proper action, that could soon change.
As directed by the historic Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act (which in 2019 for the first time gave the state’s farmworkers the right to organize into unions) the New York Department of Labor has convened a wage board to hold hearings and consider changing the state’s regulations to reduce the 60-hour overtime threshold for farmworkers. The wage board needs to recognize that farmworkers—who have proven to be truly essential workers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—deserve overtime after 40 hours, which has been long established for almost every other worker in this country.
Just like all businesses, farms have financial concerns. But the industry cannot use these concerns to justify laws rooted in the darkest point of our history to exploit predominantly Black, Brown and immigrant workers. There is virtually no evidence to support industry claims that the difference between success or failure at New York’s farms depends upon the unjust 60-hour overtime pay threshold.
Even some in the agriculture business agree, including David Breeden from Sheldrake Vineyards in the Finger Lakes region. “You know what’s expensive for the coal industry, not having child labor, but we got past that,” Breeden said during one of the hearings.
Cleary, the farm industry will survive paying its workers fair overtime. The data in the nation’s largest farm state, California, shows that their 40-hour overtime pay threshold has not corresponded with any negative impacts or shocks to the California farm economy or labor market. Farms in Washington state, where 40-hour overtime has also been implemented, are continuing to thrive.
Last year, the RWDSU helped farmworkers at Pindar Vineyard on Long Island become the first to win union membership. These essential working men and women are predominantly full-time New Yorkers. They have families here that they care for and they have family back home whom they also support. They want a better future for their children and work to provide a safe home for them. They take pride in their work, and they want and deserve dignity at work.
This dignity can only be fully realized when these workers—whom New Yorkers depend upon every day—are treated fairly and enjoy the same rights as all other working New Yorkers. The wage board must implement a 40-hour overtime threshold for New York’s farmworkers, recognizing their contributions, and moving toward correcting the injustices they’ve suffered for decades.