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Dairy, vegetable farms challenge state's new worker rights law

New York's dairy and vegetable farms are asking a Buffalo judge to temporarily halt a new state law allowing farm workers to unionize and collect overtime.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, a coalition of farms raises questions about the clarity and fairness of the Farm Workers Law passed earlier this year and asks the courts to issue a preliminary injunction.

The law, which takes effect Wednesday, is viewed by organized labor and farm worker advocates as a much-needed step in ensuring farm owners provide adequate housing and working conditions to their employees.

Farm owners, in a statement Monday, said the suit became necessary when negotiations with the state failed to address their concerns about the law's "ambiguity and unfairness" to workers and farm families across New York.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo by the Northeast Dairy Producers Association and the New York State Vegetable Growers Association.

"Today, we are simply seeking a temporary pause to the implementation of this law, to avoid harm to our farms and our employees, while the Governor and Legislature correct the ambiguities," Brian Reeves, president of Vegetable Growers, said in a statement.

Farmers say state's proposed overtime rules at odds with agricultural life

The injunction, if approved, would temporarily stop a law that would grant farm workers overtime pay, a day of rest each week,  unemployment benefits and other protections.

"Today, labor's family is whole," Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, said when the bill was signed into law. "After a decades-long fight, the lives of tens of thousands of hardworking men and women who perform demanding and dangerous work on farms all across this state will improve."

The two groups filing suit said they want to "bring clarity" to the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act and pointed to a number of concerns, including aspects of the law that they believe conflict with federal labor law.

They also want the state to modify its definition of "farm laborer" to exclude supervisors, farm owners and family members of farm owners. 

"We have every intention of abiding with this law," John Dickinson, a dairy farmer in Washington County, said in a statement, "but our farms and employees are struggling with implementation due to unclear and conflicting definitions as it is currently written.”

The suit is against the state and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, one of the new law's biggest supporters.

"This new law is not just a great achievement in terms of the effect on the human condition, it's also a milestone in the crusade for social justice," Cuomo said at the bill signing in July. "By signing this bill into law, 100,000 farmers and their families will have better lives and will finally have the same protections that other workers have enjoyed for over 80 years."

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