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Farm owners' groups sue to clarify language in new state farm labor law

Doug Kerr

A coalition of New York State dairy and vegetable farmers has filed a federal lawsuit to temporarily halt a new farm labor act set to take effect on New Year's Day.

Under the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, signed on July 17 by Governor Andrew Cuomo, farm workers would be entitled to overtime pay, a guaranteed rest day each week, disability and Paid Family Leave coverage, unemployment benefits and the right to collective bargaining.

"This new law is not just a great achievement in terms of the effect on the human condition, it's also a milestone in the crusade for social justice," said Governor Cuomo in a written statement on the day he signed the bill. "By signing this bill into law, 100,000 farmers and their families will have better lives and will finally have the same protections that other workers have enjoyed for over 80 years."

The Act has raised concerns by the New York State Vegetable Growers Association and Northeast Dairy Producers Association, who filed their case in Buffalo Monday morning. At issue is what the plaintiffs describe as language within the law that needs clarity before farm owners may ensure compliance.

Under the Act, "farm laborers" include supervisors, farm owners and family members of farm owners. Brian Reeves, president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, and owner of Reeves Farms in Onondaga County, says those in supervisory or ownership roles would be put into a contradictory position in cases of collective bargaining. Reeves likened it to a "Catch 22" situation for many, including relatives of farm owners.

"The definition of a family member is very narrow. It doesn't include extended family at all," he said. "And, it fails to recognize that on many farms, like in many businesses, there are managers and supervisors - kind of middle people, if you will - and the law does not delineate any of those."

The plaintiffs also argue that the state's Act conflicts with the National Labor Relations Act, which forbids states from adopting legislation that includes supervisors among farm laborers who may engage in organized labor activity.

John Dickinson, who co-owns Ideal Dairy in Hudson Falls and represents the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, noted in a prepared written statement that farm owners had been communicating with state officials for the past several months, expressing their concerns for what farm owners feel is a lack of clarity in the Act's language.

"The lack of guidance the dairy community is receiving is causing unnecessary stress on farms, agri-businesses, and families across the state," he said in writing. "We have every intention of abiding with this law, but our farms and employees are struggling with implementation due to unclear and conflicting definitions as it is currently written."

U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo heard arguments Monday afternoon but reserved judgement.