Judge Blocks NY Farmworker Labor Act From Starting

Liz Carey

Albany, NY (WorkersCompensation.com) – A federal judge has temporarily halted controversial legislation that would have given farmworkers workers’ compensation coverage, overtime pay and the right to unionize, pending a suit filed by farm owners groups last week.

U. S. District Court Judge Lawrence Vilardo for the Western District of New York issued a temporary injunction against the bill, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the Northeast Dairy Producers and the New York State Vegetable Growers Association. The lawsuit sought to prevent the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act from going into effect.

The Act, which went into effect on January 1, would have given farm workers workers’ compensation, the right to at least one day off every seven days, the right to unionize and the right to overtime pay if they worked more than 60 hours in one week, among other things.

The lawsuit, arguing that the wording of the act would force farm owners to violate the provisions of the act if they spoke to family members working on their farms, and that the economic impact of the act would be crippling to farm owners, seeks to find the whole law unconstitutional and strike it from the books.

“While the Act purports to help agricultural workers, the harsh economic impact on farms, particularly small farms, will undoubtedly harm these workers in many respects. As noted by one farm publication, ‘the impact on farmworkers could be mixed. While some workers may benefit from increased earnings, other workers may find their hours reduced as a result of employers trying to manage their increased costs. Wages are just one component of total compensation and ag employers may manage costs by cutting back other benefits, including health insurance, profit sharing, housing or food allowances,’” the lawsuit said. “Plaintiffs have voiced a series of concerns regarding the Act’s extreme and potentially ruinous economic impact on their businesses (which in turn will leave thousands of agricultural workers out of work). Despite hollow efforts to minimize the Act’s adverse impacts, those concerns not only remain, they have only been heightened as the Act’s implementation date approaches.”

For decades, the laws in New York prevented farm laborers from being covered by workers’ compensation, national labor laws and freedom to strike. Many farmers felt that providing such protections to farm workers would put them at risk, especially if farm workers were to strike during harvest time.

Signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in December the new bill promises to correct that. According to the legislation, the new bill would provide:

  • One day of rest after six continuous days of work (with rainy days counting as days of rest)
  • Overtime pay (for any time worked over 60 hours per week)
  • Workers’ compensation regardless of farm size
  • Regular health and safety inspections for all farmworker housing
  • The right to collective bargaining

The bill would establish “fundamental protections” for farm laborers, according to the N.Y. American Civil Liberties Union.

“Since 1938, New York’s labor law has excluded agricultural workers from fundamental protections that almost all other hourly workers receive. To get segregationist legislators to support his New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt explicitly carved out agricultural and domestic workers – primarily black workers at the time – from federal labor law. Subsequent state versions, including New York’s, retained this racist exclusion,” the NY. ACLU said in a press release. “Eighty years later, New York farmworkers still lack the rights to a day of rest, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, sanitary housing, and collective bargaining.”

The work the farmworkers do is hazardous, the organization said, exposing workers to pesticides, chemicals, intense weather extremes and dangerous animals and machinery. Between 2006 and 2016, 69 farmworker fatalities were reported to the New York Department of Health.

The injunction blocks three parts of the bill – a requirement that agricultural employees, even in supervisory roles, who are distantly related to the employer must be treated as farm workers and entitled to the Act’s protections; the part that prevents employers from changing family and supervisory employees’ pay on seven days notice; and the part that imposes criminal liability for violations of those provisions.

A hearing on the groups’ objections to the law will be held on January 24 after which the judge will make his final ruling.

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