Insights Lifestyle

Overtime in the agriculture industry: One size can’t fit all


Early summer is when my family’s farm — our generational lifeblood — is in full swing. Dozens of vegetables, from leafy greens to root crops and herbs, dot the landscape in perfect alignment.

These rows represent months of planning and investment. It’s the culmination of events that took place well in advance. From wintered over spinach the previous fall, to transplants in April, we lay the anticipatory groundwork.

But these seasonal windows are still pretty leisurely. Come June, there’s a hurried pace — peak stride — an unrelenting battery of “to-do’s,” methodically sketched out in the day’s agenda. Insert your favorite farm verb here: plant, harvest, fix, deliver, pick-up, palletize, load, calculate, spray, spread (manure), fertilize, irrigate, etc.

Image courtesy of Tim Durham

Call it a ritual, or call it a lifestyle. Never a dull moment. It’s a significant departure (and pay cut) from my campus life, but strangely satisfying. With ample time to myself navigating those immaculate rows, I feel compelled to reflect.

Consider the vitals of the industry, subject to forces both within and outside our control. Already at the mercy of the weather, what other field (pun intended) is so sensitive to seasonality, perishability, random mishaps, decision-making, price fluctuations, labor, and regulation?

As standalone issues, they’re worrying enough. But imagine a scenario where regulation worsens an already tenuous labor situation.

Imagine no longer, because it might come to fruition — all with little (to no) consultation with farmers.

What’s the issue? The standard 40-hour work week has been a focal point for advocates since the dawn of the labor movement. Many were routinely working 70+ hours in the 1800s (tradespeople often worked 100+ hours), and this rightly galvanized a movement. The old slogan “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will” sums it up.

It was the original self-help and self-actualization platform. With the weekend (also) won, the next step was to effectively penalize the employer (not reward the worker) for imposing any work hours beyond the standard 40, hence time and a half, aka overtime (OT).

Supporters claim it brings market parity and long-neglected justice to farmworkers. Why shouldn’t they be paid as if they were in any other industry? They seem to view it as long overdue penance for a legacy of abusive tactics against workers.

In the ag realm, we know that farming isn’t a typical 9-to-5 profession — only 40 hours a week is a pipe dream. It has operational elements that simply aren’t compatible with such a static, artificial number.

Despite that, the New York State Farm Laborer Wage Board voted to forge ahead, albeit with a 10-year phase in. The threshold had already been set at 60 hours since 2020.

Labor advocates had pushed for an immediate lowering of the threshold. Thus far, the governor has not formally approved the Wage Board’s recommendation.

Images courtesy of Amber Parrow

Amid a perfect storm of labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks, and fertilizer and fuel inflation, this seems like the most inopportune time. Tax credits have been proposed as a mechanism to blunt the effect, but this is a bureaucratic Band-Aid — offsetting funds have to come from somewhere (e.g. taxpayer pockets). Certainly not going to help dispense with the stereotype of farmers with outstretched hands!

In practice, how will OT work? Farmers have a fixed quantity of dollars to allocate to payroll. Lower the OT threshold, and they’ll 1) hire more workers, and 2) cap their hours at 40. Less take-home pay per worker. How does that model worker justice? You have to wonder if farmworker advocacy groups can see beyond their demonization of farmers to the very palpable collateral damage.

Also, if overtime mandates are implemented, who exactly can weather them? Family operations, or corporate entities with the financial means and political sway? Who exactly is being helped by the further consolidation of the industry (which these OT mandates are poised to do)?

The reality is that there’s ample H-2A (migrant guestworker program) workers willing to take farm jobs. And they want as many hours as possible (often to send remittances home) — but OT mandates disincentivize that. Farmers will make a rational decision to hire more workers and cap earnings at 40 hours. In New York, assume $15/hour for H-2A workers. Each member of our crew works about 70 hours a week in season.

For the migrant laborers, figure $1,050/week before deductions. About 20 fold what they could earn in their home country. But now, if they’re capped at 40 hours, that equals only $600/week. Quite a pay cut. They crave those additional hours, but this supposed fix doesn’t enhance or otherwise model social justice, it artificially caps their earning potential. It’s a lateral wealth transfer — among their peers. Not Robin Hood-esque “steal from the rich, give to the poor” heroics.

No one seems to advocate for farmers working more hours for zero assurances of any pay. They get whatever crumbs are left at the end of the calendar year once the books are reconciled.

We also know that farmers treat their workers exceptionally well. Our crew members are “repeat customers,” the same team generally returns every year. We must be doing something right.

I applaud (historic) labor advocates for planting the seeds of justice. Worker mobilization was a necessary pushback against systematic abuses. But the pendulum is now shifting the other direction. Overtime shouldn’t be wielded as a punishment for an already fragile industry — squeezed margins put them on the ropes. Some argue that OT will sound the final death knell in the industry. And the contagion is spreading — other states are investigating, if not already implementing OT (like Oregon).

In addition to farmers, local economies are also slated to suffer, as are consumers come check-out at the grocery store. I also get the impression that many farmers in New York (I don’t presume to speak for them) feel like the Board’s decision was a sham, preordained decision, steamrolled without careful consultation from all parties. This breeds mistrust and cynicism, and threatens to backpedal any progress farmers have made in the arena of engagement and governmental affairs.

Overtime in the ag sector is a colossal misfire, and a glaring incompatibility if there ever was one. One size can’t fit all.

Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Associate Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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