A guest contribution from CLN member Laurie Konwinski
The workers who harvest fruits and vegetables, milk cows, and tend other farm animals do not have the same labor rights as other workers in New York State. The same is true in almost every other state.
It seems no coincidence that during the Jim Crow era, when millions of African Americans labored as farmworkers and domestic workers, those two categories of workers were denied coverage under the basic labor rights established under the New Deal. Those rights included the right to overtime after a 40-hour work week. Over eight decades later, federal and state labor laws continue to exclude farmworkers.
Catholic belief in the dignity of labor and in the right of every single worker to basic workplace fairness determines that there is no legal nor moral basis for this unequal treatment. For many years, the New York State Catholic Conference and dozens of other faith and labor organizations supported passage of the state-level Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, a bill to end the exclusion of farmworkers from labor protections such as overtime, a guaranteed day of rest per week, and the right to bargain collectively.
In 2019, the Catholic Diocese of Rochester New York collected more 10,300 petition signatures in favor of the bill. A watered-down version of it finally passed the New York State legislature that year and was signed into law. Pressure from the very powerful agricultural lobby shaped the bill so that farmworkers would only receive overtime after working 60 hours per week. However, the new law also established a three-person wage board to consider if that 60-hour threshold ought to be lowered.
Advocates from Catholic Charities and workers’ rights organizations funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development were among hundreds of people who testified at recent hearings of this wage board. In asking that the overtime threshold be lowered, they cited the health and safety risks facing farmworkers, especially after 40 hours of work, and the obvious structural racism of a system that provides unequal treatment to a workforce comprised almost exclusively of people of color. A decision from the wage board is pending. It may be one more step towards equal labor rights for those whose work feeds millions of people.
Coordinator, Justice & Peace Ministry
Catholic Charities Tompkins/Tioga, based in Ithaca NY
and member of the Diocesan Public Policy Committee of the Diocese of Rochester NY