Overtime farm worker: States challenge federal exemption

STUYVESANT, N.Y. (AP) — Harvest season means long days for U.S. farm workers — but often no overtime pay. Federal law exempts farms from rules that entitle most workers to 1.5 times their regular wages if they work more than 40 hours a week.

New York now joins many states that have begun to change the rule.

The state labor commissioner on Friday approved a recommendation to phase in a 40-hour threshold for farm worker overtime over the next decade. Currently, farm workers in New York qualify for overtime pay only after they work 60 hours a week.

Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon called the plan “the best way forward” for fairness for farmworkers and success for agricultural businesses.

Washington, Minnesota, Hawaii and Maryland also provide forms of overtime rights to agricultural workers. California, an agricultural giant, this year began requiring farms to pay overtime to employees who work more than 40 hours a week.

The changes have excited workers, who say they need more money, but alarmed some farm owners, who say the increased labor costs could wipe out the thin income.

Some advocates of the labor movement fear that workers’ time will be forgotten.

That’s what Elisabeth Morales says happened in the vineyard where she works in California’s Central Valley. After the state’s overtime rules changed, the vineyard cut his hours to no more than 40 per week, and hired more workers to get the work done without having to pay overtime.

Morales, a mother of four, said she had to take a second job at McDonald’s to supplement her wages at the vineyard, which is $15 an hour for tasks such as picking and 40 cents per box of grapes. that he can choose.

“I prefer to work overtime even if they don’t pay us overtime,” Morales, 43, said in Spanish.

There isn’t much national data yet to say for sure whether lowering the overtime threshold will be as bad for the farm bottom line as agribusiness predicts, or as good for workers as the labor movement hopes.

Farm workers were excluded from overtime pay in the federal 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, and some labor advocates say this is a legacy of Jim Crow.

The change in the overtime rule is aimed at people like Doroteo, a farmhand at a Long Island vineyard who works nearly 60 hours a week during the harvest season, supplementing his salary with jobs in landscaping on the side.

Doroteo prunes and weed crops for $15 an hour. His salary goes up to $800 a week in the summer, when most of the work has to be done. Her income will decrease in the fall, making it difficult to send money to her three children in Guatemala. He asked that his last name not be published out of concern that he could be fired for talking about his job.

But farm owners say agriculture is exempt from overtime rules for a reason.

“There needs to be some common sense about what people expect when they work on a farm, and that it’s unique to other workplaces. It’s not something you can do 40 hours a week and have weekends,” said Nate Chittenden, the owner of a midsize dairy farm in Stuyvesant, New York.

Besides his family members, his farm has 10 full-time employees.

“No farm wants to see people exploited. We value the people who work in our fields. We want to provide them with a living while they work in our fields,” said Chittenden.

The New York state government created a tax credit intended to offset overtime costs for farm employers, which Chittenden said would help.

In Washington state, this year saw the first harvest in which farm workers could qualify for overtime pay after 55 hours of work. That threshold will drop with a phase-in that will make workers eligible for overtime after 40 hours of work in 2024.

In California, as more workers become eligible for overtime, some farms have switched to less labor-intensive crops such as walnuts and almonds, which can be harvested efficiently with human-powered equipment. said Brian Little, California Farm’s employment policy director. Bureau, representing farmers.

He also said some growers are moving toward machines, rather than people, to do things like prune trees.

“It can run for hours. It doesn’t matter if it’s 95 degrees outside. It doesn’t need a lunch break, and it doesn’t matter if it’s working nine and a half hours a day,” Little said.

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Maysoon Khan is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow Maysoon Khan on Twitter.

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