Farm worker overtime: States challenge federal exemption

STUYVESANT, N.Y. (AP) – Harvest season means long days for America’s farm workers, but usually no overtime. Federal law exempts farms from rules that entitle most workers to 1.5 times their regular wages when they work more than 40 hours a week.

New York now joins several states that have begun to change the rule.

The state’s labor commissioner on Friday approved a recommendation to phase in a 40-hour overtime threshold for farmworkers over the next decade. Right now, farmworkers in New York are only entitled to overtime pay after they’ve worked 60 hours a week.

Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon called the plan “the best way forward” for farmworker fairness and farm business success.

Washington, Minnesota, Hawaii and Maryland have also granted extraordinary forms of rights to farmworkers. California, an agricultural giant, this year began requiring farms to pay overtime to employees who work more than 40 hours a week.

The changes have excited workers, who say they badly need the extra money, but alarmed some farm owners, who say the extra labor costs could end up with lower profits.

Some labor movements defend the fear of limiting workers’ hours.

That’s what Elisabeth Morales says happened in the grape vineyard where she works in California’s Central Valley. After the state’s overtime rules changed, the vineyard reduced its hours to no more than 40 per week and hired more workers so it could get the work done without having to pay overtime.

Morales, a mother of four, said she had to take a second job at McDonald’s to supplement her vineyard wages, which are $15 an hour for tasks such as weeding plus 40 cents for each box of grapes that picks up.

“I would prefer to work overtime even if we don’t get paid overtime,” Morales, 43, said in Spanish.

There isn’t much national data yet to say for sure whether lowering the overtime threshold will be as bad for farm bottom lines as agribusiness predicts, or as good for workers as the labor movement hopes.

Farm workers were excluded from overtime pay in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which some labor advocates say is a legacy of Jim Crow.

The overtime rule change targets people like Doroteo, a farmer at a Long Island vineyard who works nearly 60 hours a week during the harvest season, supplementing his pay with gardening work on the side.

Doroteo prunes and weeds for $15 an hour. His pay goes up to $800 a week in the summer, when more work needs to be done. She earns less in the fall, which makes it harder to send money to her three children in Guatemala. He asked that his last name not be published out of concern that he could be fired for talking about his job.

But farm owners say agriculture has been exempted from overtime rules for a reason.

“There needs to be some common sense about what people expect when they go to work on a farm, which is quite different from other areas of work. It’s not something you can do 40 hours a week and have the weekends off,” said Nate Chittenden, owner of a medium-sized dairy farm in Stuyvesant, New York.

In addition to his family members, his farm has 10 full-time employees.

“No farm wants to see people taken advantage of. We value the people who work on our farms. We want to give them life as they work on our farm,” Chittenden said.

The New York state government created a tax credit meant to defray the cost of overtime for agricultural entrepreneurs, which Chittenden said would help a little.

In Washington state, this year saw the first harvest where farm workers could benefit from overtime after working 55 hours. This threshold will drop in a phase-in that will see workers entitled to overtime after 40 hours worked in 2024.

In California, as more workers became eligible for overtime, some farms have switched to less labor-intensive crops like walnuts and almonds, which can be harvested efficiently with human-operated equipment , said Brian Little, director of employment policy for California Farm. Bureau, which represents farmers.

He also said some growers are moving toward machines, rather than people, to do things like trim trees.

“He can work for hours. He doesn’t care if it’s 95 degrees outside. He doesn’t take a lunch break and he doesn’t care if he’s working nine and a half hours in a day,” Little said.


Maysoon Khan is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow Maysoon Khan Twitter.

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