A worker checks the vines at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic...

A worker checks the vines at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic in 2018. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

In October, workers at Long Island’s Pindar Vineyards made history by becoming the first farmworker collective bargaining unit in New York history. Organized by Agricultural Workers United and represented by RWDSU/UFCW Local 338, the Pindar workers are speaking publicly about their working conditions since they now feel protected by the union against employer retaliation.

Other farmworkers are less willing to share their stories because they fear retaliation, including losing their jobs and their employer-provided housing. This concern is more acute for workers with families since they risk more than their own displacement.

As a result, farmworkers are generally not participating in the ongoing state hearings about lowering the overtime threshold for New York farms.

The landmark 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act gave the state’s farmworkers the right to overtime pay and set the threshold at 60 hours. It also created a Wage Board to determine whether that threshold should be lowered.

The Wage Board held five hearings in 2020 and three this month; the final hearing will be on Friday. Not surprisingly, those testifying are mostly farm owners who swear their farms will go out of business if the overtime threshold is lowered.

By contrast, very few farmworkers have testified. Some testified about lowering the threshold, some asked that it stay at 60. The workers who said they want the threshold to stay at 60 were usually in the company of their employers when they testified and many are on seasonal H-2A guest-worker visas.

My two decades of research, including hundreds of conversations with New York farm laborers, have consistently shown the reasons behind this kind of testimony: Workers are made to understand that if they do not cause any trouble, they can keep their jobs.

Not causing trouble means not complaining about unsanitary housing or dangerous working conditions, or when their paycheck is less than what it should be.

Not causing trouble certainly does not mean testifying about lowering the overtime threshold.

Charles, a 40-something Jamaican guest-worker, told me why he and his co-workers don’t speak up about problems on the job: "We are taught to be quiet." Workers have shared this sentiment with me for more than 20 years.

Management advice also confirms this. In 2005, Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management published a report, followed by training workshops, for farm owners to help them better understand their predominantly Hispanic workforce. The advice describes typical characteristics and behaviors farmworkers may exhibit, including a tendency to accept their situations. The report also suggests that Hispanic workers "accept authority in the workplace and often do not challenge it."

In November, I visited Lena, a Long Island farmworker who has experienced wage theft, lived in some of the worst housing I’ve ever seen, and was disrespected and ignored by her employers, even when in need of medical attention. At the same time, she told me she enjoyed her work and wanted to continue.

When I asked Lena how to make sense of this apparently irrational response, she said: "I get what you are asking — it’s crazy. I don’t know why I haven’t looked for other work … I don’t speak English. I’m not useful." She went on, getting teary-eyed, as she explained that there are "no opportunities" at home in Central America and that women are treated badly there. For Lena, leaving Central America 18 years ago was an escape from suffering and hardship.

Lena’s story offers another insight into why workers don’t speak up. They rationalize their situations by comparing them not to other U.S. workplaces, but to conditions in their home countries. As a result, they prepare themselves to expect much less than they deserve. This is a tragic outcome, despite the fact that they are New Yorkers who live here year-round.

So how can we learn what New York farmworkers really think or want? Anonymous testimony won’t help — there’s no way to track who submitted it. Confidential testimony still requires them to give their names to the Wage Board and they are too afraid of a leak to their employer.

Speaking directly to workers without their managers or employers present is the gold standard in getting authentic workers’ stories. Yet that requires building trust or meeting workers through a trusted third party, a task that has been complicated by COVID-19.

As they weigh their decision about lowering the overtime threshold, members of the Wage Board need to consider that the testimony they hear is heavily one-sided and skewed by the unwillingness of workers to appear before them. The Board should understand that farmworkers’ lack of testimony doesn’t indicate they are happy; it more likely demonstrates that they are afraid to be seen or heard in a public forum.

This guest essay reflects the views of Margaret Gray, an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University.