By Dennis J. Brawdy
As a vegetable grower and member of the Eden Valley Growers Cooperative, I took exception to what was stated in the editorial promoting the Farmworker Fair Practices Act, sponsored by Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo.
Stating the law would affect only “big business” is not true. Our cooperative, which ships 600,000 cases of produce seasonally, is all family farms, employing more than 200 seasonal workers. Hand labor is critical and there are no other feasible alternatives. Labor comprises 60 percent of our expenses. Mandating overtime wages will increase our labor expenses by at least 15 percent. The costs are substantial.
A mandatory day of rest is unworkable. We work when crops are ready, when the weather cooperates, and if the sale is there. We have days of rest, we just cannot pick when they happen. Crops must be harvested in a finite window, when conditions dictate. Customers demand the highest quality.
Comparing New York agriculture to California is unfair. California agriculture operates 12 months per year, with little competition, given its size. Some of our product is sold locally, but much is shipped to markets in East Coast population centers. Competition is fierce. We do not set our prices – the customer pays what the market bears. We cannot recoup this expense, particularly if our competitors don’t share it.
Our workers do not want this bill. They move up and down the East Coast seasonally based on which crops are ready to be picked. We already have labor shortages. Hiring more workers to avoid the overtime provision is not an option. We know that we have to treat our workers well, or they won’t return. They are paid well, provided many financial incentives, yet we still struggle to find enough workers to pick the crops. They see an eight-hour day and mandatory day of rest as a disincentive, since they know, as we do, that the opportunity for all of us to earn our money is when the crop is ready.
New York State has a myriad of laws governing farm workers and worker protection. The Department of Labor’s Migrant Worker Division regularly visits our operations to ensure laws are complied with and workers are treated well. We have higher energy, labor, taxation and insurance costs than our regional competitors, coupled with the regulatory environment New York is famous for. Minimum wage was increased, and although the average farmworker wage is much higher, it will drive up the cost base. Should the federal government enact this law on a national level, so be it – a level playing field for all. New York already has a well-deserved reputation for creating an environment that forces businesses to close or leave. This law is another sad example, and Kennedy should learn the facts from actual farmers and workers, not Kerry Kennedy, before sponsoring it.
Dennis J. Brawdy is president of D&J Brawdy Farms.