Karl Novak, general manager of Half Hollow Nursery Inc. in...

Karl Novak, general manager of Half Hollow Nursery Inc. in Dix Hills, was among those testifying Wednesday during a virtual public hearing before the state Farm Laborers Wage Board. Credit: Newsday / James T. Madore

The state shouldn't lower the 60-hours-per-week threshold for farmworkers to receive overtime pay because the benefit has only been available since Jan. 1 and more time is needed to determine the impact on farms, speakers said Wednesday during a virtual public hearing.

Sixteen of 18 people testifying before the state Farm Laborers Wage Board said three to five years of data is necessary to study the effects of New York's first agricultural overtime law. The coronavirus pandemic has upended farm operations, so this year isn’t a valid test of the new Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, they said.

The farmers, trade association executives, politicians, an agriculture professor and one farmworker each called on the wage board to recommend that the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo leave alone the threshold of when time-and-a-half pay begins for farm employees. Previously, there was no requirement to pay farmworkers overtime, no matter how many hours they worked.

One speaker was from Long Island: Karl Novak, general manager of Half Hollow Nursery Inc. in Dix Hills, which grows flowers, plants, scrubs and trees on 625 acres in Laurel for use by landscapers.

“Even without the hardships of the pandemic and the reduced hours of operation, it would be difficult to evaluate the effect of the new overtime regulations on our business after such a short period of time,” he said.

Novak, like all the farmers who testified, said he’s tried to keep employee work schedules under 60 hours to avoid overtime. Half Hollow has more than 70 employees; 30 work year-round, he said.

“We have another minimum wage increase on Long Island in 2021 [to $14 per hour], our costs of production are already some of the highest in the country," said Novak, a former president of the Long Island Farm Bureau. "We all care about the well-being of our employees, we should also care about the well-being of the agricultural industry."

Wednesday’s 90-minute Zoom hearing was the first of three being held by the three-member wage board. The others are Thursday and Monday, both at noon.

Board chairwoman Brenda McDuffie of the Buffalo Urban League and board members Denis Hughes of the union umbrella group New York State AFL-CIO and David Fisher of the New York Farm Bureau have until Dec. 31 to issue their recommendation about the overtime threshold.

The recommendation could affect about 24,000 farm employees, including more than 3,100 in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Local farmworkers 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.

“I can assure you no decisions have been made,” McDuffie said after one speaker suggested the wage board had already resolved to reduce the threshold.

Upstate dairy farmworker Carlos Cardona urged the board to recommend that...

Upstate dairy farmworker Carlos Cardona urged the board to recommend that 40-hours-per-week be the benchmark for overtime pay to kick in. Credit: Newsday / James T. Madore

Upstate dairy farmworkers, Carlos Cardona and Crispin Hernandez, urged the board to recommend that 40-hours-per-week be the benchmark for overtime pay to kick in.

Cardona, of East Bethany, said his workweeks used to be 72 hours and 84 hours until his schedule was reduced to make him ineligible for overtime.

Farmers “were exploiting me because there was no law supporting me, but now I have more free time because they don’t want to give me overtime,” he said in Spanish. “I’m being harmed economically by a reduced paycheck.”

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