An upstate Federal Judge has issued a temporary restraining order halting the implementation of certain provisions of the state’s landmark Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act that had been slated to go into effect on Jan. 1.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Vilardo’s ruling came in response to a Dec. 30 lawsuit brought by New York-based dairy and vegetable farmers who alleged that the measure granting farmworkers the right to organize, get overtime pay and have at least one day of rest a week, ran afoul of existing Federal law.

Too Many Covered?

The New York State Vegetable Growers Association and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association maintained that the way the law was drafted farmowners, their family members and supervisors were all included in the legislation’s definition of “farm laborers” entitled to collective bargaining.

The trade groups assert that farmowners, their families and those they hire as supervisors, are expressly prohibited by Federal law from either supporting or resisting efforts to unionize by the rest of the workforce.  

In a statement, Brian Reeves, a Baldwinsville farmer and president of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association, said that his advocacy group had attempted for months to resolve what he called the “ambiguity and unfairness” of the new law before it won final passage in the Assembly and Senate.

“Today, we are simply seeking a temporary pause to the implementation of this law to avoid harm to our farms and our employees, while the governor and legislature correct the ambiguities,” Mr. Reeves said.

Judge Vilardo’s stay applies until the next court hearing on Jan. 24. He was appointed in 2015 by President Obama.

What the Bill Provides

Governor Cuomo signed the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act back on July 17, guaranteeing farmworkers the right to collectively bargain and receive overtime, disability benefits, paid family leave, one day off a week and unemployment benefits.

The bill also made farmworkers eligible for unemployment insurance and Workers’ Compensation benefits while requiring farmers improve conditions at labor camps by adhering to higher standards.

For the last 20 years the initiative had been a legislative priority for the State AFL-CIO, which encountered stiff resistance from the state’s well-organized agricultural sector. After Democrats won control of the State Senate in 2018, the dynamic changed.

The law if upheld would end the exclusion of farmworkers from protections that cover the rest of the workforce that date back to when they were exempted from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and the 1938 Fair Labor Practices Act. Domestic workers were also denied those basic protections.

State: Limited Holdup  

In response to a query from this newspaper, the State Department of Labor, responsible for enforcing the new law, said that Judge Vilardo’s stay was only relevant to a portion of the legislation.

“The order does not prohibit any of the worker protections or employer responsibilities that the legislation was clearly intended to provide,” said spokeswoman Deanna Cohen. “Farm workers will still have new rights and employers will still have new responsibilities on Jan. 1, 2020.”

She continued, “Instead, the order temporarily limits enforcement of three provisions of the law, pending a hearing….The provisions in question could have been read to extend worker protections to certain family members and supervisors.”

“Attempts to delay any portion of the law by those seeking to treat farmworkers as less than other workers, come as no surprise,” said Mario Cilento, president of the State AFL-CIO “Denying farmworkers equal rights has been their goal for decades. The law is sound and should be upheld.” 

Mark Dunlea was the executive director of the Hunger Action Network for New York State and worked closely with the Rural Migrant Ministry during their multi-year effort to get the Farmworker bill passed.

‘Righted a Racist Wrong’ 

“This righted a racist measure that excluded farmworkers that were predominately people of color,” he said in a phone interview. “They should have always been entitled to this as the same basic labor rights everyone else was entitled to. It’s a disgrace it took this long.  We hope that Attorney [General Letitia] James and Governor Cuomo vigorously defend this law.” 

"We were proud to pass a landmark labor rights bill for farmworkers this session, and I look forward to seeing it enacted,” said State Sen. Andrew Gounardes. 

“When the legal dust is settled, I’m confident that the implementation of the law in New York will work as intended,” said State Sen. John Liu.

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