Is There a Light at the End of This Debate?
Outside of my window winter is in full force. Nothing even remotely resembles spring. The Wage Board has rendered us a temporary reprieve as far as any new threshold for overtime. In 2021 we can continue to hone our labor management skills at the 60-hour level. In the short term this offers us some time to shift our operations to meet this challenge. As farmers, unlike other industries, we are better prepared to look at issues in longer time slots than a single year. Orchards take years to mature. We need to treat this issue in a similar manner. Where we are today in 2021 will most likely be a short resting spot from the final landing spot on this issue.
In my opinion, the debate is only on hold. I think there are many social indicators in and outside of our State that indicate sweeping changes are developing. I think it is almost a certainty that we will see a national $15 minimum wage. We all are aware that state minimum wages have little similarity in actual paid beginning wages. One only has to hold up two charts and see this. If you compare each state minimum wage against the state required Adverse Effect Wage rate you will see little similarity. In Georgia, the state minimum wage is $5.15 per hour while the adverse effect wage rate is $11.71. The Georgia wage could never be used as the federal rate is $7.25. Raising the federal rate to a universally realistic rate for everyone to $15 does help keep production costs across state lines in line. The real differential will be the application of overtime levels.
The National Council of Agriculture Employers did a study in April 2020. They found a remarkably high inflated US unemployment rate due to Covid-19. They reported that there were 275,000 agricultural jobs listed yet only saw 337,000 people even making an inquiry. Needless to say, very few of these inquiries resulted in a job being taken. In short, high unemployment rates and higher state minimum wage rates do not equal farm hires.
I think we should examine trends in hours of weekly employment. In the US employees reported 41.5 hours. I find that at the same time 11.1% of US employees worked in excess of 50 hours per week. This tells me that many people are in need of more than 40 hours per week to meet household needs. I wonder how many of those 11.1% would have liked to remain at their primary job instead of seeking other odd jobs offering a lower hourly wage.
I think, while it may be difficult for most of us, we must accept new levels of comfort. Today’s employee will not work the hours of past generations. Everywhere we look we see business making better usage of the fewer man hours today’s employee will share with us. Stores have cut hours by having self-checkouts. On the NYS Thruway we no longer have employees in toll booths. Our challenge today is when we cannot find enough workers, we must find ways to make them more productive for us.
The light at the end of this debate, as I see it, is we must first accept that we must get our work done with fewer hands. To do this we must find new means of increasing the fewer man hours we have. Automation will be in essence the new “man” on the job.
The push to bring all our farm workers to a 40-hour work week will not end. In the short time we must learn new methods to accomplish the job. To refuse to do this is to fail. We no longer walk to work. First, we rode a horse. Next, we drove a car. Today we do not even leave our homes, we ZOOM! The only thing we know for certain is that tomorrow will be different from today. We need to evolve. I think in time we will be able to focus on the new light at the end of the tunnel.