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Farmers decry state passage of workers' rights legislation

A farm laborer at work at Schmitt Farms

A farm laborer at work at Schmitt Farms in Riverhead on Aug. 4, 2016. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskrvas

Long Island farmers  say new legislation that grants farmworkers the right to unionize, a weekly day of rest and overtime pay could signal the end for already struggling farms. 

The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act was passed by state legislators Wednesday. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he would sign the bill.

The bill would undo a 1937 provision in state law that excluded farmworkers from rights afforded workers in most other industries.

The new bill "is going to force us to cut back, hire less help," said Matthew Schmitt, 35, a fourth-generation farmer who grows vegetables at his family's Riverhead farm, Philip A. Schmitt & Son. 

"We just can't afford to pay the overtime; that, coupled with the rising minimum wage, it's killing us." 

During the summer, his busiest time of year, Schmitt's farm employs about 25 workers. He said his family provides housing free of charge to about 75 percent of laborers, who can work an average of 70 to 80 hours a week. The new legislation would pay the workers 11/2 times their regular rate of pay once they worked more than 60 hours in a week.

"We're planning to hire only about eight to 10 workers once this law goes into effect," he said.

New York Farm Bureau president David Fisher said though he's "not 100 percent happy with the bill,"  his group had "made progress," reaching compromises before its passage. 

The bill's inclusion of a 60-hour work week, instead of the 40-hour work week originally proposed for overtime pay, was "a good, reasonable compromise," he said. 

Despite that, he added, "From what we've heard from farmers, many have told us they're still disappointed and upset."

Fisher estimated the true impact of the legislation won't be felt for about a year and half from now. The legislation would go into effect on Jan. 1. 

For advocacy groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, Rural & Migrant Ministry and the Justice for Farmworkers Coalition, the changes can't come soon enough. 

"Farmworkers have been exploited for their labor for far too long," said Jose Chapa, a former farm laborer who now works as a campaign coordinator with Rural & Migrant Ministry and the JFW Coalition. "... We're happy to see that New York has finally taken a step closer toward equality." 

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