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Costly measure

Farmers concerned proposed legislation would raise expenses to ruinous levels

June 14, 2009
By RODNEY MINOR, The Leader-Herald

To hear farmers tell it, there is nothing fair about the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act.

The controversial state legislation - which would bring many changes, including overtime pay, to the industry - got many members of the agriculture community riled up recently.

Gordon Schaufelberg, the vice president of the Montgomery County Farm Bureau, said the agriculture industry, particularly in New York, is under a lot of economic stress already. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act would raise the cost of labor to an unaffordable amount for many farmers, according to Schaufelberg and many others in the industry, further burdening many farms and possibly putting some out of business.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Fred Fagan rounds up the dairy cows for milking Wednesday at the Fagan Dairy Farm in the town of Perth.

However, with the apparent takeover of the state Senate by a coalition that ousted the Democratic majority from power, many farmers said while the bill is not dead, they have less to worry about.

"Hopefully, with the [change in the Senate], the Senate will not go along with this nonsense," Schaufelberg said.

The proposed labor bill would, among other measures, create an eight-hour work day for laborers, require a time-and-a-half overtime pay rate, require farmers to allow employees to take at least 24 consecutive hours of rest each week and require all farmers to provide unemployment insurance and disability benefits to their farmworkers.

Peter Gregg, a spokesman for New York Farm Bureau, said the organization estimates the overtime proposal would cost the industry more than $200 million per year.

While large and medium-size farms are already required to provide unemployment insurance and disability benefits, the legislation would require all farms to have employees covered under those programs, Gregg said.

He said that means even farms with just a few seasonal employees would be required to provide them with disability coverage. That could create the situation, Gregg said, of a farmer paying for coverage on a person who is no longer employed at his business for the rest of the year.

Gregory Fagan said at his dairy farm he already had to let a couple of employees go earlier this year. It is a particularly tough time for dairy farmers, he said, and he had to scale back his business.

"People need to know how rough it is," he said

Schaufelberg said many dairy farms are not getting paid enough for their milk to cover the amount it costs to produce it. Farmers are typically getting between $11 and $12 per hundredweight for their milk.

The cost of production typically is between $15 and $18 per hundredweight.

For many farmers and lobbyists in the agriculture industry, the concern about the proposed labor bill is that it would exacerbate an already difficult situation.

Supporters of the legislation in the state Assembly typically said farmworkers in New York are unfairly being denied rights available to employees in other industries.

"We rely on these workers to keep our state's largest industry running and to bring food to our tables," Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said in a news release. "They deserve equal rights under the law."

Tim Sievers, of Mohawk Ridge Farms in the town of Florida, said he understands why many of the politicians in Albany supported the bill.

However, he said, they are not taking into account the extra benefits many farmers provide to their employees, such as housing.

"They are not comparing apples to apples, so to speak," Sievers said.

Fagan said part of farming is dealing with delays in work and making up for lost time. Sometimes, factors out of a farmer's control, such as rain, can stop work, he said. That means the work will have to be done later, he said.

That can make an eight-hour work day and a 40-hour work week impractical, he said.

Lee Hollenbeck, the supervisor of Broadalbin, used to have employees when he was running his dairy farm. He said when he needed an employee to spend more time at work than anticipated, he would try to give the worker some time off later to make up for it.

The proposal sounds like another unnecessary mandate from the government, Hollenbeck said.

"They don't want people to think for themselves," he said.

In the short term, farmers will not necessarily be able to raise the price of their products either, according to Dave Balbian, the area dairy specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

While the cost for farm products would go up in the long run if the proposed legislation is passed, he said, in the short term, the extra expense would have to be absorbed by the farmer. Farmers do not operate like some companies, he said, which can raise prices quickly to accommodate an increase in costs.

"The price [for milk] will not shoot up" if the legislation is enacted, Balbian said.

Not only would having to pay for overtime be a "substantial" cost increase, he said, it would put farmers in the state at a competitive disadvantage compared to those in other states.

Fagan said the agriculture industry generates about $2.50 in the wider economy for every dollar it takes in. Given the precarious situation many farmers find themselves in, he said, the fact the legislation is even being considered is a concern.

"Agriculture is New York's largest industry," Fagan said. "Why would you want to knock that back?"

The bill passed in the Assembly June 8 by a vote of 86-58.

Assemblyman Marc W. Butler, R-Newport, said after the Assembly's approval the legislation moved to a committee in the Senate.

"I think the bill and the vote show a clear lack of understanding and sensitivity to the position of upstate farmers," he said.

Butler, who opposed the bill, said there appeared to be less of a Republican and Democratic divide over the issue than an upstate versus downstate one. It became one of the most debated bills the Assembly dealt with this session, he said.

Agriculture is still the cornerstone of the upstate economy, he said, and the proposal would put severe economic stress on farmers. Given the current conditions for farming, the last thing needed is more "micromanagement from Albany," Butler said.

 
 

 

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