A state panel is expected by Dec. 15 to consider making it easier for farmworkers to be paid overtime — a prospect denounced by some farmers on Long Island and across New York State.
The Farm Laborers Wage Board agreed late last year to reconvene between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15 to again consider whether farm employees should be paid time-and-a-half after 40 hours of work per week or keep the current threshold of 60 hours.
In a 2-1 vote on Dec. 31, 2020, the panel decided to take no action, saying more time was needed to study the impact of farmworker overtime pay, which was first instituted in the state on Jan. 1, 2020.
Panel members also cited the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to wait.
At a news conference on Tuesday at a farm in Brookhaven hamlet, local farmers and their supporters urged the wage board to defer action again.
"This would be devastating to our industry on Long Island," said Bob Nolan, owner of Deer Run Farms LLC, referring to a lower overtime threshold. "My cost of production goes up and there’s competition from other states and Canada … We’re at an unfair disadvantage," said Nolan, who hosted the event.
Nolan grows 25 crops on 30 acres, including beets, carrots, celery, kale, lettuce, spinach and herbs. He said he has 10 to 12 employees, with six coming from Mexico and South America on work visas each spring.
"I’ll have to reduce hours, there will be less pay" if the overtime threshold is lowered to 40 hours, said Nolan, adding that his workers have received 15 to 20 hours of overtime weekly in the summer.
"They would rather have the 60, 70, 80 hours [a week] than 40 hours with overtime … They are here to work and then go back to their country," said Nolan, a fourth-generation farmer.
Longtime farmworker Moises Penaranda said he agreed with that logic.
He said his earnings from Kurt Weiss Greenhouses Inc. in Center Moriches allow him to help family, friends and neighbors back home in Ecuador. In each of the past two years, he’s sent $4,000 to $5,000 to his rural village for use in buying food and other necessities.
"I don’t want to make less money," said Penaranda, 50, who has tended to flowers and plants at Kurt Weiss since 1994.
Kurt Weiss general manager Bill Zalakar said overtime pay is the latest challenge for the region’s 600 farms and their 6,000 to 10,000 employees. He noted the state minimum wage will increase from $14 per hour to $15, starting Dec. 31.
"If you lower the overtime threshold and thereby increase the labor expense, we’re going to cut back our production on Long Island" and do more at the company's facilities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida, said Zalakar, who also is president of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
The state Department of Labor, which oversees the wage board process, declined to comment on Tuesday.
Spokeswoman Deanna Cohen told Newsday that Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon "has until Dec. 15 to reconvene the wage board. When we have additional information, we will share," she said.