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April 11, 2019 - 8:00am

Local farmers raise concerns about farm labor bill in New York

posted by Howard B. Owens in farm labor bill, farm labor, news, agriculture, Le Roy, notify.

 

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Proposed changes to farm labor practices in New York would likely destroy the state's agriculture industry, with a spill-over effect on many other businesses in local communities, and ultimately lead to families getting out of farming, a group of local farms said Wednesday at a press conference at Stein Farms in Le Roy.

The farmers gathered to raise concerns about the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act now making its way through the New York State Legislature.

"We're at the point I think where this has the potential to be the single greatest economic devastating effect on agriculture in New York in my lifetime," said Dale Stein, senior partner at Stein Farms.

The bill's chief sponsor and supporter, Sen. Jessica Ramos, from Queens, is in Batavia today, as a guest of Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, to meet with area farmers and listen to their concerns. The press conference was called in advance of that meeting so farmers could share their concerns with the broader public.

"We just aren't heard now very well by Downstate And it's not they're not good people and don't care. They do. Our people want to work. They don't want 40 hours a week. They don't want eight hours a day as my staff tell me. I don't want to sit home and watch TV. I'd rather come and work. We offer them extra hours if they want they come and work. They don't want us at home. They want to make all the money they can."

Stein, along with Jeff Toussaint, an Albion farmer, and Jim Starowitz, a farm employee in Byron, not only talked about the potential costs of the bill, which would institute new overtime rules, reduce weekly working hours, and other regulatory burdens for farms, but also how unnecessary the bill is because of laws already in place, the above-minimum-wage pay scales in place at farms now, and the desire of farm workers to work while there's money to be made.

The bill would also allow farm workers to join labor unions.

"I'm here to tell you that apples are a perishable crop and I can't emphasize that enough," Toussaint said. "They have to be harvested on time. If apples are left in the orchard too long they become soft and we're unable to store them. In just a matter of a few days of becoming overripe, they can lose 50 to 75 percent of their original value. A strike during harvest season would ultimately be catastrophic."

Starowitz said the increased costs associated with the bill would eventually put a lot of farm workers out of work.

"The costs are an additional $200,000 a year," Starowtiz said. "That equates to an extra $32 a tonne (aka metric ton), or almost a thousand dollars an acre. If all states where there are growers are on the same level, we could pass our cost along like every other business.

"But this is a state law that puts us in a noncompetitive position with other states. It increases labor cost and over time we will be no longer able to raise our vegetables. We'll have to move to a row-crop-only business or close our doors."

Maureen Torrey, co-owner of Torrey Farms, joined the conversation and said besides making it harder for her to compete nationally, the proposed changes will also make it harder to attract farm labor to New York.

"We have a limited pool even of visa workers," Torrey said. "They're going to go work where they can get a minimum of 60 hours or more."

Scott Chismar
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I have a feeling that 150 years ago many of the plantation owners in the south were saying the same kinds of things that these Farmers are saying today.

In many cases these farm workers are modern day indentured servants.

They deserve protections on the job, and the right to have a union. What an outlandish idea, huh?

Daniel Norstrand
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I do agree with you Scott and this is a conversation worth having. I have had a change of heart regarding this bill at this time. This particular bill would put all of the pressure on the farmers of NY state and none on other states. Putting NY farms at a distinct disadvantage. Also, the right to strike could wipe out a farm in one season. From an interview with Shelley Stein I heard yesterday she claims her farm pays $11+ to $14 +. That's livable money. More than I expected to hear. The fact that media was barred from the meetings with the downstate rep. is rather suspicious. It hasn't been revealed as to who's idea that was but I can't believe a politician would want that. I would like to see some investigations by the media to discern how the workers view their situation since no one has interviewed or polled workers who weren't presented by farmers. I don't mind paying higher to give workers a living wage etc., but there's no upside to ringing the death knell on the whole process.
That having been said, farmers need to prepare for the eventuality. I feel that Americans should be doing this work and there are a number of pools of American employees available to do that. Military is a big one. Close the vast majority of of our military bases and cut the size of our forces. Coupled with a system that utilizes the homeless, prison inmates, small time offenders assigned to community service and able bodied welfare recipients. This more than makes up for the "needed" foreigners. This doesn't even approach the automation that's coming.
I could see backing some of this bill immediately with a moratorium on the different facets at different time frames. But again, what do the workers want/need?

Howard B. Owens
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" It hasn't been revealed as to who's idea that was but I can't believe a politician would want that."

Sen. Ramos came here on the condition that the media not be allowed to attend either event.

I was told by Ranzenhofer's staff that the negotiated agreement was no press. Ranzenhofer thanked me for leaving before she arrived at the morning event because he didn't want her to think he was sandbagging her.

Since the event at the onion facility was on private property, Ramos staff had no authority to ask me to leave (and a member of her staff did approach me and expressed dismay that I was there). Of course, I'm going to do my best to ignore any politican who says I can't gather news as I see fit.

There were more than 200 farmworkers at that event. There's no way to get that many workers there and have them all be "presented" by farmers. There was every opportunity for Sen. Ramos to speak to anybody she wanted and as you can see from the other video the workers thronged around her to express their views. Of course, I don't speak Spanish but from what English-speaking farmworkers told me nobody was expressing any views different than what you hear farmworkers telling me on the video. Since Sen. Ramos canceled my interview with her I can't get her point of view of what she heard.

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