Local farmers took part in a statewide campaign to outline the consequences of a $15 an hour minimum wage on agriculture.
“The $15 minimum wage is one of the biggest issues facing small businesses and family farms in the state in years,” said Clinton County Farm Bureau President Tony LaPierre at the North Country Chamber of Commerce on Monday morning.
“It’s going to have a profound effect on our operation in many ways.”
The Plattsburgh press conference was one of 12 similar events across the state.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is urging the State Legislature to adopt his minimum-wage plan with the budget due for completion at the end of this month.
The proposal would gradually raise the wage from $9 an hour to $15 by the end of 2018 in New York City and by 2021 in the rest of the state. He has proposed $300 million in small business tax cuts to help businesses absorb the higher labor costs, a number that critics say is far too low.
CAN’T HIKE PRICES
LaPierre owns Rusty Creek Farm in the Town of Champlain hamlet of Coopersville. He milks a herd of 500 cows with a crew of eight full-time and four part-time employees.
If the governor’s plan to hike the minimum wage comes to fruition, he said, some farms will have to cut back on their workforce and in some cases look to technology to do so.
For those farms that can’t invest in modern technology, he said, there is a possibility they will go out of business.
LaPierre said that, unlike some other businesses, dairy farmers can’t simply charge more for their milk to make up the difference. Milk is a commodity, with prices set by the market and the laws of supply and demand.
“We are not able to pass these costs along to the consumer, so how are our businesses going to be able to deal with this?” he asked.
LaPierre said the increase would be more palatable if it were at the federal level, so all states would be on a level playing field.
Giving agriculture in neighboring states that much of an advantage would result in more local farms going out of business and a rise in out-of-state commodities in the local market, he said.
Essex County Farm Bureau President Erik Leerkes owns Leerkes Farm, a dairy farm in Ticonderoga. He has one partner, one other full-time employee and two to three summer helpers each year.
Leerkes said he has been proud to pay more than minimum wage for the 20 years he has owned the farm. Last year, his part-time employees made $10 an hour.
One worker, however, soon left when he landed a job with a higher wage at International Paper, the farmer said.
“For me to get good help, I need to pay more than minimum wage,” he said.
It goes beyond simply wages, Leerkes said. As wages increase, so do costs such as unemployment insurance and Workers Compensation insurance.
The increase most likely would mean he would hire fewer workers, and that means he would have to put in even longer days himself than he does now — a minimum of 60 hours a week and often much more in summer.
“I’ll tell you this — I don’t make minimum wage once I figure out how many hours I work,” Leerkes said.
The farmers were joined by North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas, who said the chamber’s annual issue survey showed strong opposition to a $15 an hour minimum wage.
In the canvass of 4,200 North Country business owners, there was a 15 percent response rate.
Of those, 56 percent opposed any action to further up base pay. Douglass said 40 percent indicated some increase would be acceptable, but $15 an hour is too much.
The chamber president said 93 percent of respondents said that wage would eliminate jobs and harm the North Country economy.
In addition, 86 percent said there should be a different minimum wage level between Upstate and the New York City area.
Douglas said the true minimum wage is $0 — or no job at all. The $15 an hour minimum could result in many more people reduced to that, he said.
“What we ought to be about is moving more people off of $0 and onto the ladder of employment and a better life and upward mobility,” he said.
Douglas said those who really want to know the impact of a $15 minimum wage on agriculture should ask farmers.
If they want to know the effect on job retention and creation, they should ask business owners.
“They know what the impact will be. They live it, they breathe it,” he said.
In the survey, 92 percent of business owners said they would like to see more federal and state support for training programs to give workers the skills needed to land jobs that include higher wages
Douglas said with the minimum wage already increased to $9 an hour, there shouldn’t be such a rush to implement this additional hike.
The state should take the time to look at the many factors at play and decide if there should be some sort of regional or even industry sector differentials.
“It’s a good debate, but it’s a debate that ought to center on the appropriate points,” Douglas said.
“Let’s take the time to get this right and not just get it fast.”