New York Farmworker Protection Bill
Who is promoting this bill? Large religious groups who abuse their non-profit status and lobby consistently.
The hypocrisy of the advocates for The Farmworker Protection Bill (“The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act," ) is amazing, as the primary proponents are large and powerful religious organizations that benefit from many of these same handful of exemptions, like overtime, and don't want to end the exemptions for themselves. The proponents also mislead or ignore the myriad laws currently governing the living and working conditions of New York State farmworkers and the various social service programs available to them.
The primary proponent of this bill is a religious nonprofit organization called Rural and Migrant Ministry (RMM) based at 360 Noxon Rd, Poughkeepsie, New York. The ministry acts as a self-appointed farmworker advocate organization because the overwhelming majority of farmworkers in New York state have neither elected nor chosen this organization or its designated leaders to represent them or speak on their behalf. Farmworkers do not attend their board or planning meetings and the handful that attend RMM’s annual Albany lobby day event are paid by RMM to be there. These facts were admitted by RMM Executive Director Rev. Richard Witt during his sworn testimony before the state Lobby Commission in 2001.
RMM and its allies consistently claim that there are virtually no laws protecting farmworkers and that farmworkers are “invisible” and ignored by society. The truth is there are roughly a dozen local, state and federal governmental agencies that enforce a plethora of laws that govern both the living and the working conditions of farmworkers in the state. The truth is, our New York farmworkers are some of the most protected and best provided-for employees. As seasonal workers they can do very well, often making enough money to provide for themselves and family for the entire year.
Some of these laws, like the federal Migrant and Seasonal Protection Act (MSPA) only apply to farmworkers. Farmworkers are one of if not the most protected work force in the state. New York farmworkers earn, on average, more than $10 an hour. Most also receive free housing and all that it entails, including heat, electric and utilities. Many receive free cable or satellite television. Farmworkers in the state also benefit from a number of government-funded social service programs that, in many cases, only exist for their benefit, including their own free government funded health clinics, free day care centers for their children (now 14 throughout the state), free child and adult migrant education programs, as well as their own free government funded law firm which works only in their behalf. How does a farmworker compare with an urban resident working on the same wage tier when it comes to protections and programs?
RMM says: “Such legislation is much needed as 60% of New York's farm workers make less than minimum wage, nearly one-third of them work at least 60-hour weeks, and the statistics go on.”
That is categorically false. No statistics bear those numbers out. In fact, it is against current wage and hour law for farmworkers to be paid less than the minimum wage. The claim that 60% are being paid less than the minimum wage is a lie of staggering if not epic proportions. RMM also claims "Fourteen and 15-year-olds who work in the fields are paid sub-minimum wage -- $3.20 an hour." This is something Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan tried to make an issue of (despite her own district’s prevalent sub-minimum wage restaurant worker pay). When pressed, Nolan admitted that the state Labor Department had told her that a handful of people were paid this wage.
In fact, NASS statistics state in the latest Farm labor report issued (http://usda01.library.cornell.edu/usda/current/FarmLabo/FarmLabo-05-21-2013.txt & http://usda01.library.cornell.edu/usda/current/FarmLabo/FarmLabo-05-21-2013.pdf) that for Northeast Region I (which NYS is a part of) the average wage is $11.40 per hour and the average hours worked is 41 hours a week.
What we are talking about are five or six exemptions to state labor law. These exemptions, like the one for overtime pay, exist because of the production and marketing realities associated with farming. Farming does not take place in an enclosed building with a regulated environment. We have a limited time to plant and harvest. If overtime is enacted, farmers will have to cut hours during the growing season so as to afford the extra hours needed at planting and harvest times which can’t be avoided. This may mean fewer overall hours and take home pay for farmworkers. And farmers do not control the prices we receive and cannot pass on increased costs. We absorb it or go out of business. Because of pricing and weather disasters, much of New York’s agriculture is reeling. Many farm owners’ farm income lands them below the federal poverty line. The majority of growers and farmers are not “in it for the money.” We are in it because we love farming. Where do these self-appointed advocates and uninformed legislators think the money will come from to pay for these mandates? Unfortunately, we have yet to figure out how to grow money. Americans spend less than 11% of our disposable income on food, and farmers typically receive less than 20% of the retail dollar. This is the contextual reality that the self-appointed advocates never deal with.