As NY Farmworkers Near Labor Rights, Agro Industry Cries Foul

BUFFALO, N.Y. (CN) — Two Northeast farming groups brought a federal complaint Monday over a new law in New York, set to take effect Wednesday, that allows workers to unionize and earn overtime pay.

“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,” says the suit filed in Buffalo by the New York State Vegetable Growers Association Inc. and Northeast Dairy Producers Association Inc. 

Ducks are caged and force-fed at Hudson Valley Foie Gras duck farm in Ferndale, N.Y., on July 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Charles Palmer of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP represents the plaintiffs; they seek an injunction before enactment on Jan. 1, 2020, of the Farm Labor Fair Labor Practices Act.

Historically farms have not been covered by labor laws allowing them to unionize, such as the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act or the National Labor Relations Act.

The New York Legislature maneuvered to change that this past July, in a move the challengers say was rushed failed to consider their interests. Calling the law confusing, flawed and inconsistent with federal law, the complaint names New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James and Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon as defendants. 

“In order to achieve the purposes of the act, the law must be changed, allowing time for the plaintiff associations to train farms, and for the farms to train supervisors and other employees on their respective rights and responsibilities under the act,” the complaint states. 

The challengers emphasize that agriculture is a top industry for New York, raking in over $5 billion a year, but 98% of the farms are family-owned.

As for accusing state lawmakers of overstepping their purview, the groups call it baffling that the New York law allows supervisors to unionize while federal law excludes supervisors from the definition of employee.

The suit also identifies what it calls a fundamental flaw in the new state law: It defines “farm laborer” as anyone who works on a farm besides the parent, spouse, child or any other member of the employer’s immediate family. But that means farm owners themselves and their extended family, as well as salaried executives, supervisors and administrators, are in fact covered by the new legislation. 

“The act’s language in this respect therefore makes compliance impossible because it flouts the reality of family relations on farms,” the complaint says.

Finally the plaintiffs say the law will damage employee relations by demoting executive and salaried employees to hourly work.

The plaintiffs submitted a white paper to Cuomo on Dec. 13, a last-ditch effort to outline and address ambiguities and exclusions they saw in the law. If they don’t comply with the new regulations, they could face both civil and criminal penalties.

Representatives for James said they are reviewing the suit and could not immediately comment. A representative at Cuomo’s office did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.

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