Why farmers fear proposed changes to New York labor laws

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (WCAX) A bill in the New York Legislature would revolutionize the way work gets done on the farm. The proposal would create sweeping new labor protections for farmhands, but many farm owners say the ideas don't fit on the farm.

Right now, the bill is still in committee and they are holding public hearing throughout the state.

Advocates say farm workers deserve to be treated like other American workers, but critics say the changes will lead to lost jobs and closed farms.

Lawmakers want to make a change to the largest working industry in the North Country.

"People should have the right to eight hours to work, eight hours of rest and eight hours to do what they want to do with it and we have left behind farmworkers and these basic rights," said Rebecca Fuentes of the Workers' Center of Central New York.

The bill will require farm owners to give their employees a full 24 hours of rest each week and pay them overtime after reaching 40 hours. They would also have the right to unionize.

Business leaders and farm owners across the state are speaking out against the bill.

"The misconception is that the farmworkers are not taken care of, which is completely not true. They have lots of rights, they're well compensated, they're well taken care of," said Todd Giroux of the Giroux Family Farm.

Giroux says farming isn't a 9 to 5 business. The product depends on the season and the time of day.

"Farming doesn't turn off, dairy farming especially. When it's time to milk the cows, it's time to milk the cows," Giroux said.

If these new demands from the state are passed, it would mean major changes for farms big or small.

"It's not that we do not want to pay our employees, it's a matter of how much we can afford to pay them on top of what we already might be," Giroux said.

Garry Douglas of the North Country Chamber of Commerce has no doubt the new labor requirements would force many farms to close.

"The danger is that these things are very well-meaning but are being proposed by people on agriculture committees from Brooklyn and Manhattan who don't know one end of a cow from another," Douglas said.

Advocates of the bill say it's important to make this change, no matter what. It's something workers have waited 90 years for.

"We understand that not all farm owners are bad employers, Fuentes said. "This is not about them being good or bad, it's about equality and it is about justice and having justice in the food chain. Not just for the environment or the animals but for workers."

The state is holding three public hearings. The next is Thursday at SUNY Sullivan in Loch Sheldrake from 1-5 p.m.

Both Giroux and Douglas voiced concerns to us about those meetings, saying three meetings isn't enough to get an adequate reading on how people feel about this bill, and that in a start as large as New York, they should offer more, especially in the rural areas where farming is a big contributor to salaries.

This is an ongoing subject and we will keep you up to date with any new information on the proposed bill.

Anyone unable to attend the hearings but wishing to testify may submit written testimony to both metzger@nysenate.gov and ramos@nysenate.gov or in person at 201 Dolson Ave, Suite F, Middletown, NY 10940.