As the weather warms and locally-grown farm products begin to appear at farm stands and markets around Long Island, something important is going on behind those displays of plants, beets, and wine: a drive for respect for the rights of farmworkers.
The New York Farmworker: Hours, Wages & Injuries, our just-released report, reveals that farmworkers’ concerns include workplace injuries that lead to uncompensated lost wages and wage theft.
The data show that 19% of the 530 respondents had a workplace injury that led to lost work time. The rate for Long Island — which had nearly two-thirds of respondents — was 13%. At first glance, this could indicate that Suffolk County farms are safer than upstate farms. But only half of those workers with a lost-work time injury reported being compensated. This is likely due to lack of awareness of workers’ compensation, language barriers, fear, or the fact that some employers take workers to the doctor themselves, paying out of pocket.
This is a particular problem for Suffolk, which has the highest number of hired farmworkers of all New York counties. Suffolk produces $225.6 million in annual total sales for its farm products from 560 farms.
In 2022, one farmworker injured on the job showed up at a Riverhead clinic but the receptionist insisted that he not report the injury as work related. When another Long Island worker seriously injured her finger at work one morning, the farm owner drove her from one urgent care clinic or emergency room to another looking for the cheapest possible care. At the end of the day, the farm owner brought her home without any medical care at all — and without having offered her anything to drink or eat. Fortunately, the next day, local advocates helped the injured worker get to a doctor.
These experiences leave workers feeling like second-class citizens, and contribute to an undercount of farm-related workplace injuries. One respondent said: “When I was injured, I didn’t rest, because they don’t pay for time off — even when injured at work.”
State legislation passed in 2019 granted farmworkers collective bargaining protections and set the first-ever overtime threshold for farms at 60 hours. One-quarter of the respondents who work more than 60 hours a week reported not receiving their legally required overtime pay.
These violations of overtime wage regulations are particularly worrisome since the agricultural overtime threshold will decrease by four hours every two years from 2024 to 2032, when it reaches the 40-hour threshold of other workers.
In addition, intimidation is used to prevent workers from asserting their rights. As one worker put it: “In the summer the boss threatens us, so we don’t have a choice about working the seventh day.”
Farmworkers at four Long Island farms have unionized in an effort to improve their conditions and protect their basic labor rights.
The State Legislature should pass the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft Act which, in cases of wage theft, would allow an individual or the state Department of Labor or Attorney General to file a wage lien on an employer’s property. This would add an additional mechanism to assure workers are paid for the hours that they work. Two State Senate committees held hearings on the bill last week.
It’s long past time that the most basic part of the labor relationship — pay for hours worked — was respected for New York’s farmworkers.
THIS GUEST ESSAY reflects the views of Margaret Gray, professor of political science at Adelphi University, and Kelly Miller and Nina Donaldson of the University of Massachusetts- Amherst Labor Center.
This guest essay reflects the views of Margaret Gray, professor of political science at Adelphi University, and Kelly Miller and Nina Donaldson of the University of Massachusetts Labor Center.