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The New York state Capitol in Albany

ALBANY — A cadre of upstate Democratic lawmakers has broken ranks with the Hochul administration on a controversial decision to force New York farms to pay overtime to laborers after they work 40 hours in a week.

The lawmakers argue the move will force some agricultural businesses to collapse.

The Assembly members said Tuesday they will ask Gov. Kathy Hochul to hit the pause button on the plan to gradually lower the overtime threshold for those employed at farms, many of whom are seasonal workers who harvest crops.

One former farmer, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said last week’s decision by state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon to accept the recommendation of a union-dominated farm wage board on farm worker overtime should be a lesson for the Legislature to never again cede such policy changes to outside panels.

“This is not how legislative policy should go,” Jones said on a Zoom call with reporters.

Jones said farmers are struggling with unique challenges, often forced to reckon with pricing factors and state regulations that have left them at a competitive disadvantage with farms in other states.

Jones said that if the lower overtime threshold stays on track, farmers would likely slash overtime by rescheduling hours, prompting workers to move to other states at a time when many New York businesses are already dealing with a labor shortage.

“I believe we have hurt the workers in this decision, and we are going to pay the price in the near future on products being sold in New York state and also with our farmers themselves,” Jones said.

State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said last week after deciding to embrace the recommendation for a 40-hour overtime threshold that New York farmers will be benefiting from three state tax credits approved by Hochul and the Legislature that are designed to assist farm employers during the transition to a lower overtime standard.

The investment tax credit, for instance, was increased from 4%to 20% for farm businesses. Reardon said that move provides an encouragement for potential automation of farm production.

But Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said the tax credits stop short of solving the problems the reduced overtime threshold will cause.

“The tax credit was well intentioned and some farmers may take advantage of it,” Ammerman said. “But it’s not going to be the first thing that farmers look to. The money will arrive months later, after they apply for the tax credit. and their first step will be to control costs. and one way of doing that is to limit hours for their employees and ultimately, that’s going to hurt the farm workers’ income.”

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, said she will be seeking an exemption from the overtime mandate for small farmers, suggesting their operations are the most susceptible to the negative impacts from increasing their overhead through the payout of additional wage obligations.

Commenting on the fragility of agricultural operations in New York, Fahy said the state lost about 4,800 farms from 1997 through 2017.

The challenges faced by farmers have increased due to the soaring costs for fuels and other products, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine having global impacts on the prices farmers pay for products, she said. When she meets with farmers, Fahy said she sees “a look of panic and discouragement.”

“I understand that a lot of work has gone into this (the research into setting an overtime threshold) but I still want to advocate that we make some exceptions here for small farmers before we lose thousands more,” the assemblywoman said.

One of her colleagues who offered similar sentiments, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, a member of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, said she has been warning for months that a reduction from the current overtime standard of 60 hours a week will harm farmers.

“I am deeply disappointed that Commissioner Reardon has accepted the wage board’s recommendation and I urge that this decision be reconsidered,” Woerner said. “Government agencies in New York must support farmers, not actively impede the ability for this unique sector of our state economy to produce fresh, local, affordable products.”

Republican lawmakers have been uniformly opposed to the lower overtime threshold, maintaining the Hochul administration’s decision to move in that direction is an outgrowth of “one-party rule” in New York. Both the Assembly and Senate have large Democratic majorities, and the state’s last Republican governor, George Pataki, left office nearly 16 years ago.

The Labor Department is expected to begin a rule-making process for the overtime standard. That process will include a 60-day public comment period.

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