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Farmworkers urge NY lawmakers to allow them to unionize

May 6, 2019

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will push lawmakers to pass legislation allowing farmworkers to unionize, the state’s top labor official said during a farmworker rally outside the state Capitol on Monday.

The bill, known as the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, would repeal an 80-year-old state law that prohibits farmworkers from organizing to seek better wages or conditions. It would also guarantee disability benefits and overtime pay.

“Our governor believes farm workers should never be treated as second-class citizens,” Labor Commission Roberta Reardon told a group of a few dozen farmworkers, relatives and labor advocates. “Gov. Cuomo looks forward to working with the Legislature to get this important bill passed.”

Similar legislation never got a vote in previous years, when Republicans controlled the state Senate. Supporters are more optimistic this year, following a Democratic takeover of the state Senate.

Farmworkers argue they deserve the same labor rights as workers in other industries. They’re pushing for a vote in the Legislature before lawmakers end their annual session in late June.

“It is very difficult to work in the fields,” said Dolores Bustamante, who works in apple farms in western New York. She said more farmworkers would come personally lobby lawmakers but many “are not allowed to take the day off.”

Farm owners say the act would lead to higher labor costs, put the state’s agricultural industry at a competitive disadvantage and, possibly, force some smaller family farms to close.

Chris Kelder runs a fruit and vegetable farm in Ulster County and said he relies on seasonal workers — many college students looking for summer jobs — who often work long hours during the peak of the summer.

“It’s going to make it hard for us to give them the hours they like if we have to pay time and a half,” he said. He said the act could be fatal to farmers already grappling with low commodity prices.

If the act passes, he said, “We’re probably going to be getting a lot less of our food from New York state.”

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