Cuomo signs controversial farm-labor bill

Cuomo

ALBANY — Even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo was putting his signature on a new law providing a wide spectrum of labor protections to farm workers, representatives of New York’s struggling agriculture industry said they are proposing amendments to cushion the impact on farmers.

Cuomo cast the issue as one of fairness for those who toil in the fields, contending workers will now have “better lives” while receiving “the same protections that other workers have had for 80 years.”

As the backdrop for the bill signing, Cuomo chose a building in Manhattan, with no farms in sight, a fact seized upon by critics of the new law.

The measure had been blocked for 20 years by Senate Republicans. But it quickly gained traction when Democrats gained control of the upper legislative chamber in last year’s blue wave election.

Cuomo was joined at the event by his ex-wife, Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of slain U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, who had crusaded for protections for farm workers.

Tabloid newspapers posted detailed accounts of how the two — whose union once made headlines as “Cuomolot,” a word play on the “Camelot” branding bestowed on the late President John F. Kennedy’s family life — kissed each other in front of news cameras. The latter Kennedy was the uncle of Kerry Kennedy.

The new law allows farm workers to join unions, requires 24 hours of rest each work week and establishes a sanitary code for farm housing. It also extends unemployment insurance rights to workers and requires overtime pay.

In response, a coalition of farm groups said it is lining up support for amendments that would include a standard wage rate for farm workers who decide to work on the prescribed day of rest and broaden the definition of “family farm.”

The umbrella group, Grow NY Farms, predicted that without modifications workers will see their income reduced, farmers will face severe financial challenges and rural communities will be harmed.

Upstate dairy farmer David Fisher, who is president of the New York Farm Bureau, voiced frustration that elected officials ignored suggestions farmers made for modifications.

“In the end, our reasonable requests were cast aside, even though there was support for a moderated bill from legislators on both sides of the aisle,” Fisher said.

But lawmakers did agree to amend the legislation to require that laborers work 60 hours in a week before qualifying for overtime pay. Under previous bill language, just 40 hours of work had been needed for the overtime pay to kick in.

Cuomo signed the bill inside the newsroom of the New York Daily News, a newspaper that has argued farm workers should have the right to join unions.

An analysis projecting the impact of the higher wage requirements, completed for the Farm Credit East, suggested net farm income in the state could be trimmed by 23.4 percent as a result of the legislation.

A study released in May by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed think tank, contended the overtime requirements would be “manageable” for New York farms, with workers seeing higher pay to the tune of an additional $34 to $95 per week.

Several upstate Democrats, such as Asssemblymen Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, and Angelo Santabarbara, D-Schenectady, broke ranks with their party by opposing the legislation.

Two first-term lawmakers for upstate districts whose previous representatives had opposed the measure, Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, and Rachel May, D-Syracuse, voted in favor of the legislation.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com