About 200 people attended a State Senate hearing Friday afternoon as two dozen speakers offered impassioned accounts, pro and con, on legislation that would give farmworkers the right to a day of rest, collective bargaining and overtime pay.
Among the speakers were farmers, representatives of advocacy groups and a Riverhead farmworker, Juan Antonio Zuniga. Also attending the hearing at the Suffolk County Legislature building were public officials including State Sens. Jessica Ramos (D-Jackson Heights), who sponsored the bill, and Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood).
The proposed legislation, the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, would also extend disability and worker compensation benefits to agricultural laborers.
"It would grant New York farmworkers fundamental protections virtually all other hourly workers in the state have," said Irma Solis, Suffolk County director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Changes to this law are long overdue. If this bill were to pass, it would remove this unjust and immoral exclusion once and for all."
Though legislation to end the farmworkers' exclusion has been passed in the state Assembly several times — the push for New York farmworker protections dates back more than two decades — it has never passed the State Senate because of opposition from some Republican senators and industry organizations like the New York Farm Bureau.
Zuniga, who said he is an agricultural laborer who was born in El Salvador, was the only farmworker who spoke at the hearing.
"I've been working in the fields for about 13 years now," he said in Spanish. "We work from sunup to sundown; working 70-hour weeks is not unusual in this industry. It is what is required. It's the nature of the work.
"We understand this, but also know it comes at a cost. We miss out on time with our families; many female farmworkers spend up to 12 hours a day away from their children because they're working the fields."
Farmworkers do not receive the recognition, respect, or compensation they deserve, Zuniga said. He said he felt it was important for him to raise his voice "so that this law can protect and benefit [those who will continue to work the fields in the future] and their families."
After being asked by State Sen. Jen Metzger (D-Rosendale) if Zuniga would feel comfortable disclosing the name of his employer, he declined to do so, but did say he earned $29,000 last year.
Farmers also voiced concerns. Karl Novak, who manages Half Hollow Nursery, a 600-acre farm in Laurel, and is president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said the change in legislation would put growers on the Island at "even more" of a competitive disadvantage than those in nearby states.
"As it is, farmers on Long Island are already struggling financially," he said. "At $12 an hour, the minimum wage is higher here, so we're already paying a lot more for labor than farmers in New Jersey or Pennsylvania."
If the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act were to become law, he said, labor costs at Half Hollow Nursery would increase about 17 percent, adding that at nearly $2.8 million, labor costs currently account for 52 percent of the nursery's operating costs and 35 percent of its net revenue.
"If this bill passes, many farms will be forced to cut back on production to bypass the overtime threshold, shrink the size of their operations and hire less employees," he said. "Several farmers have told me if this bill goes through, it'll be the last year they farm."
Novak said the provision in the bill that grants farmworkers collective bargaining rights is most troubling.
"Imagine if workers were to strike in peak harvest season," he said. "Most farmers are dealing with perishable products that spoil quickly. This law would put New York farmers in a most vulnerable place."
He called other provisions, like the requirement to provide employees with a day of rest, and disability and worker compensation benefits nonissues. "This narrative that we [farmers] mistreat our employees is not true," he said. "We've been portrayed in a very poor light, but the truth is that most farmers are out there working side by side with their employees."
But the NYCLU's Solis said, "this is not about pitting farmworkers against farmers."
"The question is are we going to be a state where all workers are afforded basic rights?" she said.
Martinez hinted at the possibility of additional hearings. The last of three planned hearings on the bill takes place in Sullivan County in the Catskills on Thursday.