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Another Voice: Agricultural workers deserve fairness in overtime pay

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“To work so many hours every week, year-round, year after year, is not a sustainable way to maintain the health of the workers, to care for our children, or to maintain a family.”

This was the argument of a greenhouse worker for why the New York State Wage Board should decide on a 40-hour threshold for overtime pay for farm workers. The wage board is required to meet on this question by Dec. 15, and to make recommendations to the labor commissioner by Dec. 31.

Most New Yorkers earn time-and-a-half when they log more than 40 hours a week. Yet, under state law, agricultural workers are eligible for overtime pay after 60 hours. This means someone could work 10 hours a day, six days a week and still not be paid overtime.

“The minimum should be 40 hours. That is the minimum for others, it should be the same for us. We are not able to pay for the cost of living as single mothers with 60 hours of normal pay,” said Ericka, an Oswego County apple packer.

When the Wage Board meets, the members will no doubt hear from farm owners that overtime pay will be devastating to the farm economy. Yet, while employers can be expected to complain about any added regulation, the evidence suggests that this would be a manageable cost to farm owners and a substantial benefit to farm workers and the communities they live in.

In a 2019 analysis, we predicted that a 40-hour overtime threshold would reduce overtime hours while increasing workers’ take-home pay by $34 to $95 a week, a meaningful gain for people who barely make minimum wage. We also found that these benefits would permeate into local economies, as these New Yorkers spend their earnings on essentials such as food, clothes and family health care.

Farming is the only major blue-collar industry in the state denied overtime pay after 40 hours. Farms should be held to the same standard as other businesses.

There will be a cost, of course, for farm owners, but at most, the cost of overtime pay would amount to 9% of net farm income. That’s significant, but it’s not devastating. And, in fact, any cost wouldn’t be a dollar-for-dollar loss. Paying workers fairly is a way to increase productivity by reducing turnover and motivating workers.

Some people may be concerned about whether prices would rise. Yet, even if all the costs associated with paying workers overtime were placed on consumers, it would represent just a 2% increase in prices.

New York’s farms matter, from the Hudson Valley to the Finger Lakes, Western New York, the North Country and Long Island. Farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and a landscape dotted with picturesque fields are all part of what makes New York an attractive place to live, work and visit. Farms are an important part of our heritage and an exciting part of our future, the rights for farm workers should reflect that.

One farm worker we interviewed summed up how many of them feel: “We were essential, but clearly not important.”

David Dyssegaard Kallick is director of Immigration Research Initiative, Margaret Gray is an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University and Olivia Heffernan is a freelance journalist covering farmworker justice.

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