CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — Many farm owners are extremely reticent about having workers organize under New York state’s new Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which takes effect Jan. 1.
But the state’s top labor negotiator reminded farmers, during a recent presentation, that for unions to achieve their goals, farms need to succeed too.
“The point of labor relations is there’s always give and take,” said John F. Wirenius, chairman of the three-member state Public Employment Relations Board. “It doesn’t do a union good to drive an employer out of business.”
Wirenius spoke at a New York Labor Road Show program hosted by Cornell University’s Ag Workforce Development Council.
Business owners can plead cases at many different levels, starting with a state Labor Department administrative law judge who “takes the first cut at a case with an off-the-record conference.”
“Administrative law judges are very good at resolving differences,” Wirenius said. “Last year, 87% of cases were settled without a formal hearing.”
However, the Public Employment Relations Board can affirm, reverse or modify such decisions.
Business owners who disagree with board actions may take their case to the state Supreme Court and all the way up to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest level, if need be.
“You’re not just stuck with what we decide,” Wirenius said. “There are multiple chances to be heard.”
Two prominent upstate dairymen said conflicts can be avoided by practicing the Golden Rule.
“The most valuable asset on our farm is our employees. You have to treat them right,” said Dave Wood, owner of Eildon Tweed Farm, which has about two dozen workers and milks more than 1,000 cows in Charlton. “If some of these rules will help make things better, then so be it. I honestly don’t think there will be much of an impact. Employees have to be happy.”
Two of the new law’s major provisions are that workers must be paid overtime after 60 hours, and must be given one day off per week.
Some farmers, struggling with low milk prices, have said the extra expense might drive them out of business.
Wood said he’s already worked with employees on ways to implement new rules. Some workers have chosen to take a little more time off.
“There’s a neutral cost because if they aren’t working, you aren’t paying them,” Wood said.
Most of his workers aren’t working over 60 hours anyway, but Wood has hired one additional worker and will likely add another to make up for those who are working fewer hours.
George Allen co-owns one of eastern New York’s largest dairies, Allenwaite Farms in Schaghticoke. It has 42 workers and milks about 3,000 cows.
“We feel we’re good employers who have good relations with our employees. So I would like to think that everything would work out,” he said.
Allen said workers are paid a competitive wage, which is extremely important because of the region’s labor shortage. “To get good people you have to compete against whatever the labor rates are,” he said. “We’ve been paying overtime for quite a long time.”
This includes 2.5 times the standard pay for those who work on scheduled days off. Those who work on such days also get a different day off.
“It’s got to be worth enough to them to come in and not be with their family,” Allen said.
Allen said his biggest concern with the new law is that a union contract might last three to five years. But milk prices can be quite volatile from year to year.
“So if you have a long-term contract like they’re advocating and you have no idea what your milk price is going to be three months from now, it’s a little hard to figure out how you’re going to budget that when you’re making a contract,” Allen said.
Ag labor attorneys Charles B. Palmer and Joshua H. Viau said the new law’s only restriction on workers and unions is that employees can’t strike or intentionally slow down.
But the law places a much higher burden on farmers to avoid unfair labor practices that could discourage union organizing, they said.
The law is also a change for the Public Employment Relations Board, which usually deals with people who work 37.5 hours per week, not 60-plus. For decades, farms have been exempt from many labor rules.
“Agriculture has just become very important to us,” Wirenius said. “We all are on a crash course to learn about agriculture. We want to know what happens in the real world of agriculture.”