field notes

Court OKs Farmworker Rights, Putting Pressure on Albany

Mike McMahon, owner of E-Z Acres Farm in Homer, N.Y., gives a tour to state legislators on May 9, 2019.
Mike McMahon, owner of E-Z Acres Farm in Homer, N.Y., gives a tour to state legislators on May 9, 2019. Photo: Josefa Velasquez /THE CITY

The people who work to put fresh food on tables throughout New York scored a key court victory Thursday.

Farmworkers have the right to organize and collectively bargain, a state appellate court ruled — vaulting ahead of a state Legislature that hasn’t yet acted on a measure to advance a slate of farmworkers’ rights, despite a new and progressive Democratic majority.

“These are rights that every other worker in our state have, but because of remnants of Jim Crow, farmworkers were left out,” said State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), a freshman lawmaker who is sponsoring the long-stalled Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act in the newly Democratic Senate.

“Farmworkers have been fighting for these rights for decades, and passing this bill will be monumental for workers’ rights in New York,” added Ramos, who has traversed the state on a listening tour, visiting more than a dozen farms since March to talk with owners and workers.

The legislation would grant “collective bargaining rights, workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits to farmworkers.”

The 4-to-1 decision in the case brought by agricultural laborers overrides an exclusion built into a 1938 state law that gives other workers the right to organize labor unions. The majority found the law violates New York’s constitution.

The suit’s lead plaintiff was Crispin Hernandez, who was fired from his job at a dairy farm in upstate New York for complaining about working conditions and trying to organize employees.

‘A Victory for All Farmworkers’

“I’m so happy. Today is a victory for all farmworkers,” Hernandez, a 24-year-old Mexican immigrant, told THE CITY. “We work seven days a week, sometimes for 70 to 80 hours a week. It’s exploitation and we want that to change. Farm owners need to recognize the amount of work we do.

“Now we have to work on getting overtime pay and a day to rest,” Hernandez, who’s now an organizer at the The Workers’ Center of Central New York, said in Spanish.

Dairy, Queens: State Sen. Jessica Ramos at the farm in Homer. Photo: Josefa Velasquez/THE CITY

When the suit was filed against the state in 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sided with Hernandez and his lawyers at the New York Civil Liberties Union, saying that the state wouldn’t defend itself in the case.

That left the New York Farm Bureau, which represents farm owners, to defend the law — opposite current Attorney General Letitia James, who joined the NYCLU in filing the appeal.

“This ruling asserts that farm workers are no longer considered second-class workers in the eyes of the law,” James said in a statement.

“From the beginning, we chose not to defend against this lawsuit because farm workers never should have been denied the same basic rights as other workers,” said Cuomo.

Rebecca Fuentes, the lead organizer for  Workers’ Center of Central New York, told THE CITY the court’s ruling is more than just a legal decision: “It’s the story of farm workers and organizers that have fought for a hundred years to have rights.”

The Farm Bureau, which called the decision “far-reaching” and “ill-conceived,” plans on appealing the decision to the state’s highest tribunal.

New York is home to more than 35,000 farms, which generated roughly $4.8 billion in revenue and contributed nearly $2.4 billion to the state’s gross domestic product in 2017, according to a 2018 report by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

Eyes Turn to Albany

The fight to expand worker protections to farmworkers in New York goes back decades. In 1991, a task force commissioned by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo issued a report recommending that “farm workers in New York be granted the same right to organize unions and bargain collectively as nonagricultural workers in this state.”

But for two decades, the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act was stymied in the state Senate by Republicans, some of whom represented farming areas upstate and on Long Island.

But the 2018 election brought in a solidly Democratic Senate and renewed supporters’ hopes. The governor, a spokesperson said, is supportive of the bill, which is currently carried in the Assembly by Cathy Nolan (D-Queens).

With only 13 legislative session days left, however, lawmakers will have to act quickly.

Farmowners, meanwhile, say the bill, as currently drawn, could force them out of business.

On Ramos’ trip to farms in Central New York earlier this month, Mike McMahon, the owner of E-Z Acres Farm in Homer, warned her to “be careful” with the overtime provision in her bill, which would require farmowners to pay laborers one-and-a-half times normal rates if their work exceeds eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

McMahon could “live with 60” hours a week before overtime pay kicks in on his 2,300-acre dairy farm, he told Ramos.

A 2019 analysis from Farm Credit East, which provides financial services to the agricultural sector, found that the bill’s overtime provision would cost New York farmowners nearly $300 million a year.

At a hearing on the bill last month, Alexander Balsam told lawmakers the overtime provision would be “devastating” to his Balsam Farms on Long Island.

“We don’t have the means to dip into our pockets for an overtime wage,” he said. “At the end of the day, this bill, as proposed, would cause many farms to shut down, including mine.”

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