L.I. Farm Bureau president Bill Zalakar, general manager of Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in Center Moriches spoke about the impacts of pandemic on his business operations. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Lowering the threshold for overtime pay for farm workers would deal a devastating blow to Long Island agriculture, local farmers and growers told New York State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt yesterday, during a stop he made at Schmitt’s Family Farm in Riverhead on an East End listening tour with .

The State Farm Laborer’s Wage Board is holding a series of virtual public hearings on overtime pay for farm workers and will decide whether to lower the threshold for overtime pay from the current threshold of 60 hours per week.

The 60-hour threshold and the right to time-and-a-half overtime pay for hours worked over the 60-hour mark, was part of a sweeping legislative package passed in June 2019, which took effect January 1, that gave farm workers many of the same employment rights as workers in other industries.

The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act recognizes farm workers as “employees” under the the New York State Employment Relations Act, providing for the right to organize and collectively bargain.

The legislation requires 24 hours of consecutive rest per week, allowing the worker to choose to work with overtime pay. The act expands unemployment insurance and disability insurance coverage to farmworkers and establishes eligibility for disability benefits.

When he signed the bill into law last July, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the legislation “a milestone in the crusade for social justice.”

The legislation was backed by a large coalition of labor unions, farm workers organizations and religious organizations.

In addition to establishing time-and-a-half overtime pay to farmworkers after 60 hours a week, the act also established the Farm Laborer’s Wage Board and authorized it to decide whether to lower the overtime pay threshold.

L.I. Farm Bureau administrative director Rob Carpenter at Schmitt’s Family Farm Sept. 14. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The Long Island Farm Bureau opposed the legislation, which all three East End state lawmakers voted against.

Ortt was elected Senate Minority Leader in June. The North Tonawanda legislator represents the 62nd Senate District, covering western New York’s Niagra and Orleans counties. He toured the First Senate District with State Senator Ken LaValle and Assembly Member Anthony Palumbo, the Republican candidate for the First Senate District seat being vacated Dec. 31 by the retiring LaValle.

“People don’t think of agriculture on Long Island,” Ortt said yesterday outside the roadside farm stand operated by the Schmitt Family Farm on Sound Avenue. “But it’s one of the top agricultural regions in New York State,” he said.

Suffolk County ranks fourth in New York for farm sales, according to an analysis by the Office of the State Comptroller published in August 2019. It had 560 farms with total sales of $225.6 million in 2017, according to the comptroller’s report.

Phil Schmitt, who runs Schmitt’s Family Farm in Riverhead, spoke of the economic stress brought by the pandemic. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Local growers like Phil Schmitt and his son Matt, who grow fruits and vegetables on the 165-acre Riverhead farm, L.I. Farm Bureau president Bill Zalakar, general manager of Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in Center Moriches and past-president Karl Novak, general manager of Half Hollow Nurseries in Laurel, told state lawmakers yesterday how the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt their businesses and left them struggling to survive.

For example, the pandemic wiped out sales of Easter Lily plants grown at Kurt Weiss, Zalakar said. Easter is the second or third largest day in the horticultural industry and we pretty much threw away 80% to 90% of the Easter crop. Thousands of plants grown for the holiday became absolutely worthless, he said. It was a huge loss for his company.

Schmitt said his farm’s wholesale business has taken a big hit in the pandemic, with the lockdown closing restaurants and farmer’s markets shutting down.

Long Island farmers were already struggling under high operating costs and regulatory burdens, when the farm bill imposed additional costs, L.I. Farm Bureau director Rob Carpenter said.

Then, the COVID crisis struck.

Lowering the overtime threshold from 60 hours per week could be the last blow, Carpenter said — especially since Long Island’s minimum wage is rising from $13 to $14 per hour in December and to $15 per hour in December 2021.

“Prices are set by the market,” he said. “Long Island farmers are competing with other regions of the state, other states, even other countries.”

Zalakar said Long Island growers will move to other states, where the minimum wage is lower and overtime requirements don’t exist. Other overhead costs are also lower, he said.

The implications are far-reaching for the entire community, Carpenter said, not just farmers. Agricultural land with intact development rights will replace farm crops with houses, he said. Preserved farmland will lie fallow. And one of the top economic generators in the region will be crippled, he said.

Ortt said the NYC-based sponsor of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act doesn’t understand the dynamics and operations of small family farms — or the needs of farm workers.

L.I. Farm Bureau past president Karl Novak of Half Hollow Nursery in Laurel. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“Our workers know the work is seasonal and weather dependent,” Novak said. “They understand that some weeks, because of weather, they may not work 20 hours — and the next week, when the weather improves, the farm needs to get the job done and the workers want to make up the hours,” he said.

“The implication of the law is that we are taking advantage of the employees or that your’e somehow abusing them,” Novak said. “Even though they come back, generation after generation, season after season, to your farm.”

“And if there are bad actors, there are already laws against that,” said Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.

Local farmers are worried the State Farm Laborer’s Wage Board will lower the overtime pay threshold to something less than 60 hours per week.

“This has real impacts on the viability of our farmers, who are already facing a lot of challenges,” Palumbo said.

“To add another burden on farmers during the pandemic I think is just tone deaf,” Ortt said.

N.Y. State Senate Minority Leader Rob Orrt (R- North Tonawanda) listens as Assembly Member Anthony Palumbo, Republican candidate for the First Senate District speaks at Schmitt’s Family Farm. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The wage board, created by the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, is a three-person panel convened by the state labor commissioner, consisting of a representative of the farm bureau, a representative of the N.Y. State AFL-CIO and one member of the general public.

It is required by statute to hold at least three public hearings and, by Dec. 31, make a report to the governor and the legislature, of its recommendations on overtime work for farm laborers. The board is specifically mandated to “consider the extent to which overtime hours can be lowered below such amount set in law, and may provide for a series of successively lower overtime work thresholds and phase-in dates as part of its determinations.”

The wage board held its first hearing in February. Its next hearing, scheduled to take place in March, was canceled due to the COVID crisis. It has held three additional hearings virtually since then. (See schedule and links for recordings of past hearings here.)

The fifth and final wage board hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 6 p.m. and will be held via Zoom.

State Senator Ken LaValle in Riverhead Sept. 14 with Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt and Assembly Member Anthony Palumbo. Photo: Denise Civiletti

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.