By Stuart Appelbaum, President
Retail, Wholesale and Department
Store Union, UFCW
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.
Clearly, 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.
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