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Zeldin, farm owners push back against state wage board proposal for 40-hour week for farmworkers

The Republican candidate for governor, Rep. Lee Zeldin, speaks Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at the Stanton family's farm outside Albany against enacting a 40-hour overtime threshold for farmworkers. Rep. Elise Stefanik is to his left.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
The Republican candidate for governor, Rep. Lee Zeldin, speaks Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at the Stanton family's farm outside Albany against enacting a 40-hour overtime threshold for farmworkers. Rep. Elise Stefanik is to his left.

The Republican candidate for governor, Rep. Lee Zeldin, appeared Monday with other federal and state officials at a farm in Albany County to urge Democrats in power in state government to reverse a plan to phase in a mandatory 40-hour workweek for farm laborers.

The state’s Farm Laborers Wage Board has already approved a plan to end the 60-hour-per-week overtime threshold for farmworkers and replace it, over the next decade, with a 40-hour workweek. Under the changes, farm owners would have to pay overtime to farmworkers who put in more than 40 hours in a week.

The board meets next on Sept. 6 to finalize the plan.

Farm owners who gathered at the Stanton family’s farm, about a dozen miles from the State Capitol, predicted that the new rule would force many farms to go out of business. They also said it would mean an end to long-held traditions like apple picking, local farmers markets and roadside farm stands.

Peter Ten Eyck is the longtime owner of Indian Ladder Farms, which is now run by his daughter. The 84-year-old said he worries about the future of his apple orchards and other small farms if the changes go through.

“First, you’re going to lose the weakest farms,” said Ten Eyck. “The next thing you’re going to lose is the next generation of farmers. People are not going to go into this business. They’re not going to continue on.”

Zeldin said the changes hurt the workers as well as the farm owners. He said his opponent, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, and the Democratic supermajority in the State Legislature, are too beholden to the organized labor groups that lobbied for the 40-hour limit.

“Our farmers, our farmworkers are all getting collectively screwed right now by one-party Democratic rule,” said Zeldin, who predicted that the change would cause the ongoing labor worker shortage to “get worse.”

Organized labor, including the state’s AFL-CIO, have said that it’s only fair that farmworkers are guaranteed a 40-hour week, just like all other workers. The New York Civil Liberties Union said the decision to not include farmworkers in the national overtime laws created in the 1940s is based on racism, and the need for then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to gain support from representatives in the Jim Crow South.

Sergio Navarrete, a seasonal farmworker from Mexico, spoke against the 40-hour limit. Speaking through a translator, he said some of his colleagues have not returned to New York under the present 60-hour workweek rules, because they can work longer hours and earn more money in other states. He said he needs to make as much money as possible to support his family in Mexico, including a daughter who is in college.

“I didn’t come here to sleep,” Navarrete said. “I came here to work.”

Hochul has not yet said whether she agrees with the Wage Board’s decision, which was created as part of a law enacted in 2019 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature as part of a plan to increase pay for farmworkers.

In a statement, Hochul spokesperson Justin Henry said the governor “has not made any statements for or against lowering the overtime requirement because the Farm Laborers Wage Board has not yet delivered its report.”

But Hochul doubled the employee tax credit for farmers in the state budget, and she and the Legislature created a new tax credit that would essentially cover the costs of paying overtime if the 60-hour threshold is lowered. The budget also increased to 20% a tax credit for capital farming investments.

The state’s lieutenant governor, Antonio Delgado, opposed the 40-hour overtime threshold when he was a congressman, and sent a letter to Hochul expressing those views. Since Hochul chose Delgado in late May for the state’s No. 1 position, he’s been silent on the issue.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.