BUFFALO, N.Y. -- New York's Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act has provisions that could require farms to enter into collective bargaining agreements guaranteeing workers continued employment for multiple growing seasons.
However, attorney Josh Viau said the federal H-2A program prohibits that kind of commitment for foreign workers on temporary contracts.
"Not only are farmers not allowed to commit to bringing back the same workers year after year, but they are obligated to try to find domestic workers to fill those positions," Viau, a partner at Fisher Phillips Law Firm, said.
Grow NY Farms coalition represents industry leaders who have asked U.S. District Court for New York's Western District to grant a temporary restraining order stopping the Public Employment Relations Board from enforcing the law.
"The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act was written with good intentions but weaknesses in the law have enabled and encouraged outside bad actors to exploit farm workers and our farm families here in New York. Farm workers and being victimized by the very entities claiming to be their advocates," Joel Crist, of Crist Bros. Orchards, said.
The legislation took effect in January 2020, but Viau said due to circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic, it has taken time to implement. This year, however, he said several of the plaintiffs are nearing arbitration that could force them to appear to be retaliating against unionizing employees by complying with federal rules.
"The industry wasn't really sure how this was going to play out and now that we've seen how it has played out and now that we have farms under orders under this law, it's just reached a point where we feel like intervention is necessary," Viau said.
The lawsuit also argues there are collective bargaining rules in the state law that are specific only to the agricultural industry. They include a mandatory arbitration process and a system that doesn't guarantee employees the right to a secret vote to unionize.
Viau said both violate the U.S Constitution and other federal rules.
"That's our proposal is to stay enforcement of the act by the state agency until the Legislature and the administrative agency itself can make what we view as constitutionally required corrections to the law itself and then to the implementing regulations as well," he said.
The lawsuit also requests temporary and permanent injunctions. The coalition says it did bring up some of these issues before the Legislature passed the act several years ago.
It said if the judge does not grant the TRO, it will create uncertainty for the industry. The Public Employees Relations Board said it has not yet been served with court documents and therefore has no comment at this time.