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Senator O'Mara's weekly column: "Governor Hochul about to uproot future for many farmers"

Senator O'Mara offers his weekly perspective on many of the key challenges and issues facing the Legislature, as well as on legislative actions, local initiatives, state programs and policies, and more. Stop back every Monday for Senator O'Mara's latest column...

This week, "Governor Hochul about to uproot the future for many farmers"

In early September, a New York State Wage Board, established under a 2019 law known as the “Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act,” will finalize its recommendation on one of the key provisions of that three-year-old law -- and its decision could forever impact New York agriculture as we have known it.

Specifically, the Farm Wage Board will issue a final report on September 6 and recommend lowering the mandatory overtime pay threshold for farmworkers from the current 60 hours to 40 hours, a move strongly opposed by farmers and many legislators, including me.

The final decision then falls to Governor Kathy Hochul and state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon, a holdover from the prior Cuomo administration, who will have 45 days to review the Farm Wage Board’s final report before acting.

In other words, the future of farming in New York State hangs in the balance thanks to a law enacted in 2019 that was pushed by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo as a cornerstone of his so-called “progressive” remake of New York government.

Throughout the year prior to the enactment of the Act, I joined many opponents, including the New York Farm Bureau, to warn about its consequences. We feared that mandatory overtime pay and other provisions of the law, especially the creation of a three-member Wage Board granted the authority to unilaterally change the law’s provisions, without legislative approval, could worsen the impact of farm labor costs on farm income at a time when the farm economy is already struggling.

It has been reported that farm labor costs in New York State increased 40 percent over the past decade and that the 2019 measure could result in another crippling 44-percent increase in wage expenses. Total farm labor costs are at least 63 percent of net cash farm income in New York, compared to 36 percent nationally.

I debated and voted against this move when the Senate approved it in June 2019.

The bottom line is that this misguided action by a state government triumvirate of leaders under one-party, downstate-based control -- guided on many current issues by a far-left, extreme-liberal governing philosophy -- has profound implications throughout local farm economies across rural, upstate New York, including driving more family farms out of business.

And that was the case even before COVID-19, which we now know has taken its own toll on our farmers and the entire agricultural industry.

Sadly, we are seeing the worst consequences of this law playing out as we feared. Earlier this year, in the face of an outcry of public testimony and opposition from agricultural leaders and others, the Wage Board recommended paving the way for lowering the current 60-hour threshold requiring farmers to pay their employees overtime.

It’s clear that this was a preordained decision. Last January, hours of testimony from farmers, farm workers, farm advocates, agricultural representatives, community leaders, and many state legislators, including me, were still echoing across this state in near-unanimous opposition to lowering the overtime threshold, and the Wage Board took no time at all before coming out with a disastrous recommendation to lower the overtime threshold to 40 hours.

It was a charade all along. I and many others warned that this is where the Wage Board was headed from day one. It was put in place only to keep paving the way for the far-left so-called progressive political agenda that dominates Albany Democrat decision-making. It had no meaningful or sincere concern for the future of family farms and agriculture in New York State.

The Board heard from countless individual farmers and the leaders of local farm communities. It heard from the industry’s top advocates, including the New York Farm Bureau, the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, Grow NY Farms, and numerous others. It heard from local, federal, and state representatives, like me, who fear the undermining and ongoing collapse of an industry and, equally important, a way of life that has defined the regions we represent for generations.

The Board ignored us all. They ignored common sense and caution in favor of continuing this relentless pursuit of an extreme political agenda and philosophy that will drive this state over the edge of a fiscal and economic cliff.

In fact, Governor Hochul herself has signaled all along that she would be walking hand in hand with the Wage Board decision. The state budget approved back in April included a tax credit for overtime costs. In late July, the governor said that if the state moves forward with forcing farmers to pay overtime to workers after 40 hours, the state will pick up the extra costs.

“If this happens over a long rollout time, the state of New York will pick up the additional overtime costs,” Hochul said.

In other words, state taxpayers will subsidize the move, indefinitely, to the tune of at least $130 million annually. Setting aside the fact that many farmers question whether the tax credit will even cover all their higher labor costs, we also know by now that promised government subsidies aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.

Even more to the point, why should New York’s taxpayers foot yet another multi-million-dollar bill, for who knows how long, for yet another, so-called “progressive” action?

Governor Hochul has clearly been determined, from the start, to finish what former Governor Cuomo set in motion.

If left to stand, it will change the face of New York State agriculture as we have known it for generations.

Cornell University issued a report last November detailing the potential and very troubling consequences, including that:

  • Two-thirds of the dairy farms interviewed by Cornell researchers indicated they would move out of milk production;

  • One out of every 4 fruit or vegetable farms will relocate their operation outside of the state;

  • Seventy percent of H-2A workers said they would consider going to another state without capped hours if the state moves to a 40-hour overtime threshold.

It will produce a nightmare of a ripple effect across local communities and economies in every region of this state -- but especially upstate in regions like I represent throughout the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes.

It will diminish the future of high quality, local food production, as well as spark the loss of family farms and the loss of the livelihoods these farms support across the industry and throughout hundreds of local economies.

And, now, taxpayers will be forced to foot yet another bill from a state that is already one of the highest-taxed in America. Requiring New York families to pay more to subsidize immigrant farm workers’ wages so they can send more money to their families in Central America will not move New York State forward. If conditions are so bad here, why is our southern border swarmed with hundreds of thousands of immigrants walking 1,000-plus miles to be here?

It’s shaping up to be yet another economic disaster for New York’s farmers and farmworkers -- and another fiscal burden for taxpayers.

This is the worst possible time to risk mandating and regulating more farms out of business, and that is exactly where Governor Hochul is headed.


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