Cuomo mulls giving farmers break from minimum wage proposal

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office is working on a plan that would give farmers a break from his proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage proposal.

The Democratic governor, who spoke with reporters about the matter on Tuesday in Niagara Falls, said that his office is working on a “special modification” for the agriculture industry, according to a report from the Albany Times Union. But the governor did not provide any specifics about the special plan. The move comes as lawmakers are trying to pass a budget by April 1, when the state’s fiscal year begins.

“There are special conditions on farms — we understand that — and we’re putting together a special package for farmers, because they pose a unique problem, they really do,” Gov. Cuomo said Tuesday.

The governor’s office did not respond Wednesday to a request seeking more information about the proposal.

The governor’s comments come as the New York Farm Bureau held 15 press conferences statewide on Monday, including one in Watertown, to oppose the minimum wage proposal. It remains to be determined whether the proposal will be included in the state’s budget. While the Democrat-led Assembly made the wage boost a priority in budget talks, the Republican-controlled Senate has expressed reservations about it.

The plan would gradually raise the current $9-an-hour minimum wage to $15 in 2019 in New York City and in 2021 for the rest of the state.

Jay M. Matteson, Jefferson County agriculture coordinator, said that while the governor’s plan to “carve out agriculture” from the wage proposal might be well-intentioned, farmers would still be negatively impacted. While some farmers might continue to pay workers less than $15 an hour, he said, “they would have an even more difficult time finding labor and would still be faced with a drastically increased cost of doing business. All of the businesses they purchase from will have to increase the cost of goods.”

Dean Norton, president of the Farm Bureau, said in a prepared statement that the organization opposes the governor’s plan to remove the agriculture industry from the wage proposal.

“While the carve-out may sound beneficial at face value, farms must still compete for and attract quality employees. A carve-out would only make an already difficult task of finding farm labor even harder. Prospective employees would naturally gravitate towards higher paying jobs, and our wages would have to be comparable,” Mr. Norton said.

Sackets Harbor dairy farmer Ronald C. Robbins — whose operation employs 35 full-time workers — said the governor’s plan to possibly exclude agriculture from the wage proposal is misguided. Some workers are paid an entry-level hourly wage of $10 at his farm, and teenagers who work at the farm in the summer are paid $9.

“Who would come and work for us at a lower wage? You would still have to pay up and nothing’s going to change,” Mr. Robbins said. “If you could go and work at Home Depot or Lowe’s at $15, why would you work for me at $10 or $12? It wouldn’t work, and I can’t even believe the governor is that disconnected.”

Dairy farmers — already struggling because of low milk prices — have said that boosting the wage to $15 an hour would make it extremely challenging for them to operate. The Farm Bureau, meanwhile, said that farmers statewide have shared personal stories about how the wage hike would compel them to lay off employees, replacing labor with automated equipment.

A study by Farm Credit East has estimated that the wage increase would collectively cost the state’s farmers between $387 million and $622 million in 2021, when the wage would peak. It also estimated that nearly 2,000 farms would no longer be profitable.

About 20 dairy farmers from across the north country attended Monday’s press conference held by the Farm Bureau at Afgritech in Watertown. During the meeting, Mr. Matteson said, farmers reported that the wage hike would have a devastating financial impact.

“They said it will create a situation where New York’s farms can’t compete against farms in neighboring states, which would pay only half of the labor cost that New York would,” Mr. Matteson said. “They’re also concerned about the ability to attract new agricultural manufacturing, because this would make New York much more uncompetitive.”

By Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times