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Board set to issue ruling on hotly debated farm overtime issue

Worker advocates collect signatures in support of a change in the overtime threshold for farms at the New York State Fair.
Jessica Cain
Worker advocates collect signatures in support of a change in the overtime threshold for farms at the New York State Fair.

The Farm Laborers Wage board is scheduled to meet Tuesday and deliver its final recommendations on whether the farm overtime threshold should be lowered.

Central New Yorkers on both sides of the issue have been making a last minute push in recent days to get their voices heard.

Crispin Hernandez stood outside the main gate of the New York State Fair last week, gathering signatures to support his position that the farm overtime threshold should be lowered from 60 hours per week to 40.

Hernandez said the work he did on a dairy farm for three years was very difficult, and he said he’s fighting for his friends who are still working those jobs today.

Hernandez spoke to us through a translator and told us, “It's important for us because agricultural work is so important, but the salary is quite low."

Advocates for the threshold change said farm workers should have the same rights as other workers.

But Brian Reeves, a partner at Reeves Farms in Baldwinsville, said farming is not like other industries.

"I can't pick strawberries in February. I can't sell my peppers in May. I have a time for everything, and so we go hard," said Reeves.

Reeves said during the busy season, he works 90 hour weeks, and his workers often ask him for as many hours as they can get during the summer months. Reeves said the proposal would put a ceiling on how many hours he, and many of his fellow farmers, can afford to offer.

Jessica Maxwell from theWorkers Center of Central New York, a grassroots organization that focuses on economic justice, points to a tax credit in the budget that will help farms defray the costs. She adds the threshold change will happen gradually, not reaching 40 hours until the year 2032.

"We're giving lots of support and lots of time,” said Maxwell. “We have heard the farmers. We have heard the industry. We have gone out of our way to find a way to make this happen that will work for everyone, and it's time to stop the excuses."

Reeves said the tax credit is better than nothing, but he’s concerned whether it will be available long term to help farms, especially those that are already struggling.

"Between commodity pricing, perishability, and weather, and climate, I would defy you to name another-- except maybe the fishing industry-- that has to fight those four variables,” said Reeves. “So, farming is different. It truly is different."

After the board delivers its recommendation, it would still have to be approved by State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon and Governor Kathy Hochul.

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.