Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act Testimony

Published on May 3rd, 2019

Testimony on the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act at a regional Joint Hearing of the NYS Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Senate Standing Committee on Labor

Presented by Shannon Kelly, Chief Operating Officer, Catholic Charities of Orange, Sullivan, and Ulster

Seelig Theatre at SUNY Sullivan, 112 College Road, Loch Sheldrake, NY

May 2, 2019

Shannon Kelly

Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to testify on this important legislative issue facing our state. My name is Shannon Kelly. I am the Chief Operating Officer of Catholic Charities of Orange, Sullivan, and Ulster. As one of the human services agencies of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, our organization is committed to building a compassionate and just society. Catholic Charities of Orange, Sullivan, and Ulster serves the homeless, the hungry, those with emotional or physical disabilities, as well as immigrants, the marginalized and the vulnerable of this tri-county region. Last year, we served more than 42,000 individuals and families, regardless of race, religion, or ability to pay.

I speak today on behalf of our regional agency, as well as for Catholic Charities agencies across New York State, and in solidarity with the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic Bishops of New York State. Catholic Charities and the Catholic Conference have been advocating for passage of the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act for more than two decades. At the same time, the Church has been working on the ground to meet the spiritual and material needs of farmworkers and their families – through Catholic Charities, Catholic parishes, and individual clergy, religious and lay people.

It is through this lens that I deliver my remarks today. Let me begin by making one thing clear: Support for basic rights for farmworkers is not anti-farmer. At least it need not be. Our organization serves farm families and farmworkers alike. We are in this community and are well aware of the unique nature of farming and the challenges facing farmers, from uncontrollable weather factors, to the pressures of modern economies, to injuries, the high cost of maintenance, distribution of a perishable product and competition from foreign markets. We need our family farms, for our local economy and for our very subsistence.

But at the same time, just as farming has evolved technologically, it must also evolve to a 21st century understanding of fair working conditions for farmworkers. We must ensure that farmworkers are treated humanely and with dignity, in the same way we work to ensure other workers of our state are treated. This is not about putting farmworkers ahead of farms. You can’t support the farmworkers without supporting the farms, and vice versa. Both depend on and need the other.

Justice and human dignity demand, however, that changes come to the industry in terms of how workers are treated. It is important to remember that farmworkers do not seek special rights; they seek only the same rights guaranteed to other workers in every other sector – the right to overtime pay, the right to a day of rest every week, the right to workers compensation, the right to sanitary housing conditions, and the right to collectively bargain.

We hear and appreciate the concerns of those who argue that providing fair treatment to this population will raise prices for consumers, but we can truly make the same case about any other sector of the workforce, and we do not allow that to stop us from doing what is right.

If New York is truly the progressive state that we say we are, how do we justify this continued unfair playing field? We can’t. We are faced now with an opportunity. We must grab that chance and not let it slip away yet again.

I hope and pray that the Legislature will work collaboratively with the farmworkers and our family farms to craft meaningful reform this year, one that recognizes the unique contributions of our farmers, and the human dignity of our farmworkers.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you today, and God bless you.