Farmworkers and their supporters are rallying Sunday on Long Island and walking the first leg of a 200-mile march to Albany to call for labor rights for a largely immigrant workforce that plants and harvests crops in New York.
While the workers and their advocates are pushing for legislative action, agriculture industry officials said they need flexibility in labor rules to keep crops from being ruined and family-run farms from being priced out of the market.
The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act seeks collective bargaining rights, a guaranteed day-off per week, an eight-hour workday and overtime pay. The bill, first introduced in the state legislature in 2010, is held up in committee for the third consecutive session.
“We are striving for equality here,” said Katia Chapman, education coordinator with the Rural & Migrant Ministry, a statewide group. “Basically, we are asking for the state to remove the exclusion of farm workers from labor law . . . and, importantly, that they will allow it to go to the floor for a vote.”
The March for Farmworker Justice, as the event is billed, is slated to start Sunday with a 1:30 p.m. rally outside the Smithtown office of Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport). Flanagan did not respond to a request for comment.
The march will proceed to Hauppauge and Brentwood. Advocates will gather again at 7 p.m. Sunday at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Huntington, for a program that is open to the public.
Over days and weeks, the marchers plan to make stops in Bethpage and Garden City before moving into New York City and then north through the Hudson Valley. Clergy from various churches, farm workers and members of an advocacy coalition will join at different points, with a handful of activists marching from beginning to end. A rally in Albany is set for June 1.
“It’s a fairness issue, a justice issue,” said the Rev. Duncan Burns of St. John’s Episcopal Church. “We have a Gospel mandate . . . to support people in need” and “are looking especially for individuals just to listen to the stories of farm workers, to hear what they have to go through at times.”
Representatives of farmer groups said their industry, facing new minimum-wage rules, could be crippled by additional mandates. They are subject to the whims of seasons, unpredictable weather and competing produce from other states, advocates noted.
“Most people don’t understand that working on a farm is completely different from working in a store or a factory, where you can always pick up where you left off the next day,” said Rob Carpenter, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, a Calverton group that represents hundreds of farms in the region, with 600 of them in eastern Suffolk.
“There could be a major rainstorm coming in the next two days and the farmer needs to harvest their crops right then and there,” Carpenter said. If a farmer loses the crop because of work hours, “he is basically out of business.”
Farm advocates also said New York farmers value the limited pool of workers that carries them through the seasons.
However, workers such as Antonio, a Salvadoran immigrant who plants trees year-round in Riverhead, said they want equal treatment. He asked that his last name be withheld because of fear that speaking out could affect his employment.
“Farm workers like us haven’t been a priority,” Antonio said in Spanish. “We have no medical insurance, no holidays or many days of rest that are paid, and we don’t get overtime.”
Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the statewide New York Farm Bureau, said, “The bill hasn’t moved because simply the bill doesn’t make sense for New York’s agriculture.”
Advocates, however, are feeling emboldened by recent developments. The New York Civil Liberties Union sued New York and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seeking the right of farm workers to organize. Cuomo immediately announced that he would not challenge the suit and said workers should have that right.
The governor issued a statement on Tuesday saying that “because of a flaw in the state Labor Relations Act, farm workers are not afforded the right to organize without fear of retaliation — which is unacceptable and appears to violate the New York State Constitution.”