By Maria Cestero

The Suffolk County Legislature Office in Hauppauge held a hearing on Friday, April 26 to discuss the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. Farmworkers and employers alike attended the hearing to debate their views on the proposed bill.

The backbone of New York’s massive agricultural industry, farm workers, are not entitled to fundamental labor protections. The bill proposes that farm workers should be included in the basic workers rights and receive overtime pay, a day of rest per week, workers’ compensation if injured on the job and the right to collective bargaining.

New York is a leading agricultural state for fruits, such as apples, and vegetables, which are worth more than $5 billion in 2016, according to a a study by the New York Farm Bureau. Should the bill pass, overtime pay of workers will increase overall labor costs by 17 percent. Farms within New York state generated approximately $4.8 billion in revenue in 2017.

“I’m here because there are an extreme amount of regulations already and if my costs go up so do yours,” Jennifer Dupree, employer at Milk Pail Farms, said. “I agree with paying and treating people fairly but [with this bill] I won’t be able to make a living.”

Workers and organizations as well as other members stepped to the podium to give their views on the bill.

“A lot of [workers] work 70 hours a week and they should be paid what they rightfully deserve,” Eliana Fernandez, lead organizer for Make the Road New York, said. “We cannot turn our backs on our farm workers- today more than ever we need to elevate our voices and make sure this conversation becomes a reality.”

Fernandez is a part of a non-profit organization located in Brentwood that is dedicated to helping Latinos and Hispanics in New York with injustices they face. They speak on behalf of the farmworkers that fear standing up due to their inability to collectively bargain.

However, one farm worker was not afraid to voice his opinion. Juan Antonio Zuniga, a farm worker originally from El Salvador, came to the hearing to urge farmers to “give their workers the rights other companies give their workers.”

“The biggest problem us workers have is that we don’t have a law that gives us the right to medical insurance paid by the company, vacations or other benefits other workers have,” Zuniga said. “It is important that this bill for workers to have rights passes.”

Zuniga worked in the agricultural field for 12 years along with his two daughters. He stated the current regulations have hard impacts on families and the majority of workers have no vacations. Zuniga’s place of work is undisclosed.

“The law categorized them as second-class workers,” Dr. Margaret Gray, an associate professor of political science, who participated in extensive research on farmworkers and agriculture in New York at Adelphi University, said. “ The law was and is established in a way that doesn’t give the respect. It’s an important issue that doesn’t get much attention.”

Many of the laws were established in the Jim Crow era and were targeted at the majority-African American workforce, she said. Now the majority of farm workers are Hispanic.

“I hope that the Senate takes into consideration all the voices that spoke out [during the hearing] and finds a bill and puts to rest all these past injustices to these farmworkers and at the same time still support our farms,” Jennifer Rogers-Brown, board president of the Rural and Migrant Industry, said. “It really shouldn’t come down to these two groups.”

The Rural and Migrant Industry is a statewide organization working primarily on the issues facing migrant workers. Working on education and empowerment, Rogers-Brown stated the organization looks at institutional injustices head on to solve them. Rogers-Brown says the bill is “overdue to be passed” due to it being based on “racist Jim Crow era policy.”

“I would say that just because [farms] want to accomplish something business-wise because you’re trying to achieve something financially, does not mean you have to oppress or exploit a group of people which is the case for the farmworkers,” Angel Reyes Rivas,  Long Island Coordinator for Rural and Migrant Ministry, said. “This might just be the year it’s passed.”

Rivas will also be attending an event in Albany to support workers rights on Monday, April 29. Officials hope the bill will be decided by the end of Cuomo’s years in office.