Jennifer Halsey Dupree’s peaches are just now starting to blossom. She owns a 60-acre orchard on eastern Long Island. Right now, the work is tranquil, trimming branches and maintaining the rows and rows of bright pink trees.
But come harvest, Dupree says, it’s a race to pick the crop at its ripest, which can mean long hours and quick response to weather changes.
“I’ll never forget. I was pregnant,” she says, remembering a particularly nasty storm several years ago, “and I knew all my pears were going to hit the ground. I called the guys, and I said, ‘Can you please help me pick?’ They were down there, and I was picking pregnant.”
Agricultural workers are exempt from many labor rules thanks to federal laws dating back to 1930s meant to marginalize African Americans.
State lawmakers in New York – mostly urban Democrats – are trying to change this with a farm labor bill that would give farmworkers stronger protections, including guaranteed days off and the right to unionize.
But what could be devastating to farm owners is the requirement to pay time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours in a week.
Many farmers, including Dupree, agree that farmworkers deserve days off, sanitary working conditions, workers’ compensation, even collective bargaining. But Dupree says it’s hard to imagine how farmers can pay overtime.
“If we could charge $10 for a gallon of milk I’d be like, sure no problem. But it comes down to the cost of food. I don’t know how you figure that out.”
“It would be a significant increase in cost,” says Jenny Ifft, an agricultural economist at Cornell University.
She calculates if farmers had to pay time-and-a-half after 40 hours, their cost of operation would go up 25%.
“However, we don’t think farmers are just going to accept this extra cost. They are going to be doing things to adapt to it.”
For example, Ifft says, mechanization and cutting the number of hours per worker below 40 and hiring more workers.
“I don’t believe it,” says Juan Antonio Zuniga, speaking in Spanish.
Zuniga, a farmworker who spoke at a recent public hearing on the proposed legislation, says he works 11-hour days, but would prefer to work eight.
“Owners are not satisfied. They want more and more hours.”
He says some farms exploit the no overtime rule by only hiring workers willing to work 70-plus hours a week. This, he says, pressures all workers to work long hours.
New York isn’t alone in wanting to give overtime pay to farmworkers. California has already passed similar legislation and is several months into a multi-year phase-in. According to their trade representatives, farmers there have been looking for ways to employ fewer people by switching to less labor intensive crops of mechanizing anything they can.
“Some of the mechanization solutions that are available to the dairy industry are just eye-watering expensive,” says Bryan Little, who directs labor policy for the California Farm Bureau, a lobbying group. “For smaller producers it will be that much more difficult and will encourage consolidation.”
This has already been happening in New York – big farms are getting bigger and small farms are getting smaller.
Between 2012 and 2017, the number of farm operations below 10 acres and above 2,000 acres have grown by double digits. Everything in between has shrunk. Family farmers say without these middle farms, getting local fresh food will be more difficult in New York.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as many as half of all farmworkers are in the country illegally. Worker advocates say these new labor protections are necessary because these workers are more vulnerable to exploitation.
But there could be unintended consequences for workers with legal working status.
“I probably will not come,” says Adrian Rojas, a Mexican who has been returning to Dupree’s orchard for 10 years with a temporary work visa.
“Yeah, there’s no way I’m going to live out of 40 hours.”
If farmers have to cut hours in order to not pay time-and-a-half, Rojas says, undocumented immigrants can cobble together the hours they want at several different farms.
But by law, workers with legal visas can only work for the company that sponsored them.