Everyone in New York agriculture is aware of the recent, epic political struggle about the state’s farm labor laws. As of this writing, the proposed bill was passed by the New York Senate and Assembly but the Governor has not yet signed it into law. With the understanding that some things could still change, it’s time for us to start thinking about how to manage in a different legal environment. The essential goals for farm human resource managers remain the same:
- Operate a profitable, growing agricultural business.
- Provide high-quality, engaging, and safe jobs that can attract farm employees and provide them a good standard of living.
- Produce excellent, safe, and nutritious food for people who live both near and far.
We know the broad outlines of the changes that will likely take effect on January 1, 2020. Our challenge is to plan and manage to meet the goals above while complying with federal and (new) state labor laws. First, we need to understand the changes that will likely occur in state labor law, this article begins discussion of 3 major changes: overtime, collective bargaining, and a weekly day of rest. Each of these issues is complicated and we will discuss more completely in later posts, but following is my summary of these major changes and initial management considerations.
New York farm employees will be eligible for overtime once they have completed 60 hours of work in a week. Overtime pay is defined as 1.5 times the regular rate of pay so a worker at $12/hour regularly would go to $18/hour for hours worked beyond 60 inside a week. Managers need to be thinking about the financial implications of this change on the business and on employees. It will be more important than ever to control which employees are scheduled for how many hours and to be mindful of hours worked as they approach 60 in each week. This may be a good time to upgrade your scheduling and time recording systems to provide the information, alerts, and accurate records you need. Consider each production process, system, and job in your business…where can you cut out waste and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of labor? Are there parts of your production process that could be outsourced to another business, or discontinued, while you focus your labor on crops and processes with the highest return?
What about salary pay, can a farm simply convert employees from hourly to salary pay to avoid overtime? With the farm labor overtime exemption changing in New York some farm employers might consider using other exemptions from overtime, but caution is required here. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides exemptions from overtime and minimum wage for certain workers and these federal guidelines are generally followed by New York. However, federal law limits the exemptions to only certain types of employees, mainly: executive, administrative, professional and outside sales employees. The New York State Depart of Labor provides an FAQ document that defines these types of employees in more detail. Some farm employees may qualify for this exemption such as those who manage a department and formally supervise 2 or more other full-time equivalent employees. (Note that New York employers must meet the state minimums for weekly salary of $832/week in Upstate and $900/week in Long Island and West Chester.)
Collective Bargaining (Unions)
The Legal Information Institute at Cornell offers the following definition: “Collective bargaining refers to the negotiation process between an employer and a union comprised of workers to create an agreement that will govern the terms and conditions of the workers’ employment.” Farm employees will have the right to form or join a union in order to bargain as a group with their employer about their employment. This concept is incredibly complicated and quite new to most of us in agriculture so there will be much more discussion and education in the future about the meaning and implications of this change. Farm employees are not automatically unionized by this law, a majority of farm employees at a particular business must choose to sign up with a union in order to bargain collectively. If a majority of employees at a farm business choose to join the union, then the farm would be obligated to recognize the union and enter into negotiations to establish a union contract with the farm employees. Contract negotiations are complicated and beyond the scope of this post. There are some special limitations in the new law that will govern collective bargaining. Farm employees will not be permitted to strike or otherwise slowdown work on farms. Farm employers, on the other hand, are not permitted to “lock out” or prevent farm employees from working during the course of contract negotiations.
Broadly speaking, employees tend to unionize in work situations where they feel as if they have no “voice.” Essentially, that’s the purpose of a union, to move employees from a position of feeling like powerless individuals to a position of feeling like a powerful “collective” group of employees. Employers who wish to avoid having a union must focus on being great, progressive human resource managers. That means having policies and plans in the workplace that promote employee success, fair treatment, and employee “voice.” Great HR managers have a way of making employees feel engaged and committed at work, and of fostering constant and open communications. In contrast, overbearing, callous, and dictatorial managers breed employee frustration and open the door wide for unionization efforts.
Weekly Day of Rest
The new law will likely stipulate that farm employees must be allowed at least 24 consecutive hours of rest in each and every calendar week. This day of rest should be on the employee’s day of religious observance whenever possible, but it can move to another day in the week if crop or weather conditions prevent work. Employee’s can voluntarily waive their day of rest and choose to work but employers would have to pay the overtime rate (1.5X) for every hour they worked on their day of rest. This new requirement is rife with potential for confusion. Farm human resource managers need to adopt very robust employee scheduling and timekeeping systems that can manage day of rest requirements and provide documentation that it was consistently provided.
We’re embarking on a whole new era in farm human resource management in New York. We already know that employees will remain scarce and expensive, our challenge is to maximize the talent and productivity of every employee while maintaining excellent employee relationships and engagement. Excellent human resource management will emerge as not just as a distinguishing feature of the state’s best farm businesses, but as a requirement for farm business success.
By Richard Stup, Cornell University. Permission granted to repost, quote, and reprint with author attribution.
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