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State Assembly OKs legislation granting host of rights to farm workers

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In a move opposed by north country lawmakers and farmers, the Assembly approved legislation in an 83-53 vote Monday that would grant several rights to workers at all farms: mandatory overtime pay after eight hours a day, collective bargaining and unemployment insurance.

The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act now has been introduced at the committee level in the Senate, where it needs approval to become law. The same bill last was introduced in 2009, when it was passed by the Assembly, 86-58, but died in the Senate without a vote.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said Thursday she voted against the act because labor rights could not be extended to undocumented immigrant workers. She pointed out that much of the labor force in the north country is composed of immigrant workers. If immigration reform at the federal level eventually allows such workers to be here legally, Mrs. Russell said, she might support the bill.

“No amount of laws that you pass are going to improve the plight of farmworkers that aren’t working under legal status,” Mrs. Russell said. “The large majority of farmworkers are immigrants, and without leveling the playing field for all workers, you undercut the local workforce. I think the ultimate success in getting these rights is going to be undercut until you provide a legal way for workers to be here.”

But Mrs. Russell said she could support labor protections in the future, “especially if time demonstrates farmworkers aren’t being paid what many of our farmers profess they are.”

The bill isn’t expected to be approved in the GOP-led Senate, she said.

Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, said she’s going to fight to ensure the bill isn’t passed.

“As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, it’s a priority for me to support our state’s hardworking farmers,” Mrs. Ritchie said in an email. “Farming is New York’s largest industry, and I am concerned that this legislation would jeopardize the continued success of agriculture, putting jobs at risk and placing a burden on farmers and their families.”

The New York Farm Bureau has lobbied against the act, contending the labor rights could result in excessive costs during peak times of the harvest season. Workers often are needed to work long hours on farms when crops are harvested, but work fewer than 40 hours at other times of the season, said Steve Ammerman, Farm Bureau manager of public affairs. As a result, he said, mandating overtime could cause labor costs to skyrocket when workers are needed the most.

“These are things that work well in a factory but not on a farm, because they’re dictated in large part by Mother Nature,” Mr. Ammerman said. For example, farmers “could see a spell of rain when no workers get on the field, and then get an opportunity to harvest tomatoes when they’re ripe. Workers then may be needed to work more than one day.”

Jefferson County agricultural coordinator Jay M. Matteson contended the bill could have a disastrous impact on farmers here.

“Farmers are in a very weather-dependent industry and don’t have the ability to set milk prices to cover costs,” he said. “To mandate that you have to pay overtime is just ludicrous, because farmers have to do certain things in intense periods based on harvests. And if workers have the opportunity to go on strike, it would be easy to shut down and destroy a farm” during the harvest season.

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