Workers tend to hydrangea plants at Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in Center Moriches.

Workers tend to hydrangea plants at Kurt Weiss Greenhouses in Center Moriches. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Farmworkers on Long Island and across the state will have to wait at least a year before a state panel makes a recommendation about cutting the number of work hours before overtime must be paid.

On Thursday, the state panel charged with examining whether the overtime threshold should be lowered from 60 hours per week to 40 hours said no action should be taken until it reconvenes in late 2021. Two of the three panel members said more time was needed to see how the economy comes out of the pandemic.

The Farm Laborers Wage Board was appointed by state Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon in February, barely one month after overtime was first required of farms in New York. The board was to study the feasibility of making it easier to earn overtime and to suggest actions by Reardon.

"There is tremendous uncertainty in the world" because of COVID-19, wage board chairwoman Brenda McDuffie of the Buffalo Urban League said during a 20-minute virtual meeting. "More time is needed before the overtime threshold can be reduced."

Board member Denis Hughes, former president of the state AFL-CIO, an umbrella group of unions, disagreed, saying the postponement of a decision is "an affront" to restaurants, food processors and other agriculture-related businesses that already pay time-and-a-half to their employees after 40 hours of work per week.

He proposed the overtime threshold be reduced over 10 years, with no change in the first two years followed by a 2.5-hour reduction in each subsequent year. Neither McDuffie nor board member David Fisher of the New York Farm Bureau would second Hughes’ amendment.

Fisher said, "We don’t know where the economy’s going to be in the next few years or where we’re going to be. … I think this is appropriate, and I don’t view it as kicking the can down the road."

Separately on Thursday, the next phase of an increase in the state minimum wage, which applies to farmworkers, went into effect. On Long Island, the hourly minimum rose $1 to $14.

The wage board’s decision affects about 24,000 farmworkers statewide, including more than 3,000 on Long Island. Local farm employees earned, on average $41,574, in 2018, excluding the value of employer-provided housing, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Labor.

The decision also is supported by testimony of farmers and others during five public hearings, including Rob Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, which represents 550 farms.

Lowering the threshold for overtime pay "will hasten [farmers’] exit from farming, resulting in a loss of farmworker jobs," he said in August.

Upstate dairy farmworker Carlos Cardona used to work 72 hours and 84 hours per week until his schedule was reduced in 2020 to make him ineligible for overtime. He said he would benefit from a lower threshold.

Employers "were exploiting me because there was no [threshold]," Cardona, of East Bethany, said in Spanish in August.

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