State lawmakers approve controversial bill granting rights to farm workers

State lawmakers approve controversial bill granting rights to farm workers
Sen. Patty Ritchie argues on the Senate floor against passing a farm workers rights bill. (Source: WWNY)

ALBANY, N.Y. (WWNY) - After hours of debate, the state Legislature passed a bill aimed to protect farm workers.

Lawmakers from rural parts of New York, including the north country, say the legislation could be the end of many small farms.

It's called the Farm Worker Labor Practices Act. It cleared the state Assembly Wednesday and passed the Senate late Wednesday night by a 40-22 vote.

The bill allows farm workers to unionize, creates a mandatory day of rest, requires farmers to pay workers overtime, and other measures, including a controversial new wage board.

Proponents say the bill is long overdue, provides farm workers basic rights, and protects them from exploitation.

Those opposed say neither farmers nor their workers are in favor of the new rules and they fear they could break many farms struggling to stay open.

"It's irresponsible if we don't watch out for our family farms, because whether anyone thinks it's going to happen or not, the fact that we lost 2,000 farms in the last five years and the fact that every farmer that I talk to, whether they're big, medium, or small, they're teetering on the brink of disaster right now," Sen. Patty Ritchie said. "You could ask Farm Credit or anyone that deals with our farmers, they can't take much more, so for that reason, Mr. President, I vote 'no.'"

"I'm worried that many of these farms will probably go out of business and if the state of New York passes this and the governor signs it, it'll be probably one of the worst bills that I've seen go through this Assembly," Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush said.

Blankenbush went on to say "New York City Democrats delivered a gift to the politically connected labor unions that fund their campaigns. I'm urging the governor to veto this bill."

Sen. Rachel May, who represents Madison and parts of Oneida and Onondaga counties, calls the bill "a remarkable achievement" and "a decision that really hears and listens to the farmers and all the voices."

Assemblyman Mark Walczyk said the bill demonstrates "ignorance about farming and our way of life upstate."

The bill now needs Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature.

In a statement, Cuomo said "with the passage of this legislation, we will help ensure every farm worker receives the overtime pay and fair working conditions they deserve. The constitutional principles of equality, fairness and due process should apply to all of us. I am proud that, with the help of my daughters' years-long advocacy on this critical issue, we got it done."

Lawmakers passed the bill as they prepare to adjourn for the year this week.

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