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COURT DECISION: The U.S. District Court Western District of New York has scheduled a hearing on the temporary restraining order for Jan. 24.

Ag groups, New York state will go to court over labor law

A federal judge has granted a temporary restraining order against parts of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act.

A federal judge in New York has blocked parts of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act from going into effect after a lawsuit was filed in court in late December.

On Dec. 30, New York State Vegetable Growers Association Inc. and Northeast Dairy Producers Association Inc. filed a complaint in U.S. District Court Western District of New York stating that the act, which was signed into law in July and went into effect Jan. 1, violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause and was pre-empted by the National Labor Relations Act.

On Dec. 31, the court granted a temporary restraining order against parts of the law from going into effect. A hearing is now scheduled for Jan. 24.

The issue surrounds the act’s definition of farm laborer and how that extends to family members. New overtime and collective bargaining rules for nonfamily employees are not affected and went into effect, as scheduled, on Jan. 1.

A joint news release by the New York State Vegetable Growers Association and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association states that the act puts farms in a “catch-22” regarding the classification of family laborers.

The groups state that if supervisors, owners and family members are classified as farm laborers, then they have the right to engage in collective bargaining with other employees. But if they are also agents of the business, then they must not engage in conduct that would discourage union concerted activity, assist in the formation of a union or otherwise violate the rights of farm laborers. The two groups state that this puts farms in a bad position because farms would be in violation of the law regardless of how they proceeded.

The two groups also claim that: “The act also conflicts with Section 14(a) of the National Labor Relations Act. The act includes supervisors as part of the group of farm laborers who may engage in concerted activities, but the NLRA expressly prohibits states from adopting such legislation, and so the law is preempted by federal law.

“Because the act includes supervisors, owners and family members for purposes of its hour restrictions and overtime pay requirements, farms must reclassify the way they engage these individuals, and this compounds the conflict as farmers endeavor to implement the law. As a result, if a farm decides to classify its supervisors, owners and family members as farm laborers, it will result in a violation of the act’s collective bargaining provisions. On the other hand, if a farm takes the position that supervisors, owners and family members are not farm laborers, the farm may be subjecting itself to criminal and civil penalties by violating their rights as farm laborers and by violating the hour restrictions and overtime pay requirements.”

Chyrese Wells, spokeswoman for the two groups, said in an email that the lawsuit was filed following months of conversations with state officials in order to clarify language and flaws in the law.

“The lawsuit was a last resort, but necessary in order to clarify language as farmers begin implementing the law,” Wells said. “The judge’s order acknowledged that irreparable harm would have occurred had certain provisions of the act been allowed to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.”

No effect on nonfamily members

While parts of the law are being argued in court, the rest of the law is in effect, according to Rich Stup, agricultural workforce specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“Overtime, day of rest, collective bargaining and increased insurance requirements are now in place for most frontline, nonfamily farm employees,” Stup said. “Employers should carefully track hours worked for most, if not all, employees and pay overtime for eligible employees who agree to work more than 60 hours in a calendar week designated by the farm. Farms should also update their work agreements with employees to indicate how many hours of work will be expected each week and to clarify how overtime pay and day-of-rest rules will apply to each employee."

The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act was signed into law in July. It allows farmworkers to be paid overtime if they work more than 60 hours a week, and grants farmworkers one day off a week or paid overtime for working that day.

The law also grants farmworkers the right to worker’s compensation, and it establishes a Farm Laborers Wage Board that will meet in 2020 to further study the overtime issue in the state and possibly lower the 60-hour overtime threshold.

Farms who employ immediate family members are exempt from the overtime rule.

Farmworkers will also be allowed to organize and form unions but will not be allowed to strike.

Ag groups quickly criticized the passage of the law. Grow NY Farms, a coalition of more than 50 New York-based farms, local businesses and organizations, including New York Farm Bureau, said the law would pose hardships for some farms.

The coalition wanted four things in the law to be modified:

  • Apply a standard wage rate for farmworkers who decide to work on the prescribed day of rest.
  • Expand the family farm definition to include close relatives such as aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.
  • Modify the composition and timeline of the wage board.
  • Preserve secret balloting for both farmworkers and farmers.
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