Thursday, October 18, 2018

Right-to-Farm: A right no more?

I’m surrounded by dairy farms.

Not only am I downwind from a sizable operation, but I also live right next door to a few hundred head of cattle.

Being immersed in their fragrance doesn’t bother me at all and, quite frankly, it smells like home to me. It’s an integral part of country living and the smell of slurries and feedlots means that my friends and neighbors are doing well in their quest to put food and beverages on kitchen tables across America.

Some folks aren’t so understanding of that.

Every once in a while city folk move into dairy country -- something becoming more common locally as Amherst creeps into Niagara County via residential sprawl in Pendleton and south Lockport -- and are taken aback by the smells. They weren’t raised in the country and were likely expecting to smell flowers, not animals and their waste, when they staked their claim.

I guarantee a good many of them have complained to their town officials or have waved a cursing fist at expanding barns.

Those complaints for the most part have had no teeth.

Our local farmers have been properly protected by Right-to-Farm (RTF) laws. The New York State constitution directs the state legislature to provide for the protection of agricultural lands, something that is manifested in sections 300 and 305 and 308 of New York Agricultural and Markets Law. Those standards allow for the formation of agricultural districts in which the operations of farms are protected from nuisance lawsuits (such as, smell is ruining the quality of life) as long as the state’s Agricultural Commissioner issues an opinion that a particular farming practice is sound.

Such protections have kept New York’s farms vibrant, active, and free of lawsuits that could hinder their growth if not outright destroy their businesses.

That might no longer be the case if what’s happening in North Carolina makes its way north.

Based on the outcomes of an initial trial in 2017 that found that a hog farm was liable for nuisance damages despite North Carolina’s extremely strong RTF laws, lawsuits have been filed a-plenty in the Tar Heel State against hog farming operations.

The trial lawyers have marketed their efforts specifically at Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods (you go after the deep pockets first and for best results). There are 23 trials scheduled by more than 500 homeowners against Murphy-Brown, and 3 are already in the books that saw jury verdicts of $50 million, $25 million, and $473.5 million. Luckily for the farming operations, in those cases punitive damages were limited to “only” $3.25 million, $5 million and $94 million – significant sums nonetheless -- based on a payout cap made state law in 1995.

How are the plaintiffs wining, despite RTF? It was ruled in the first trial that there was a change in conditions – the specific pig farms weren’t in operation before some of the neighboring long-term residents had moved in, so the farms created an nuisance that was not pre-existing.

What does this mean for other states? More specifically, what does it mean for New York’s farmers and ranchers?

The Empire State’s defense of farmers are especially strong thanks to the creation of ag districts, the realm in which RTF exists, but if a small mom-and-pop farm doesn’t fall into the criteria (a district must be comprised of 500 acres by an owner or group of owners) it can be forced to close or alter operations due to perceived nuisances. In an era when a lot of people in my generation and those younger are starting up small farms to capitalize on the locavore movement, they are right in the sights of lawsuits.

More so, I would be concerned that some of the law firms that had success in North Carolina could see big victories in New York (where we don’t have a cap) based on the fact that New York trials in 1993 and 1997 ruled that manure is a pollutant. Those cases focused on animal feces that made it into waterways. But, one of those slick southern lawyers could bring a suit that jumps on that and says that if manure is a water pollutant then, by God, it must be polluting the air, too, creating a public health nuisance.

So, don’t be surprised if lawsuits against farming operations large and small become more common everywhere across this country after the successes that homeowners have had in North Carolina, regardless of the Right to Farm. 

It’s a scary thought.

I don’t know about you, but I like food. As a matter of fact, I need it. Thankfully, there are hardworking farmers out there who make that nourishment accessible, affordable, and healthy. Hurt them, and you hurt every one of us.

From the 22 October 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, October 5, 2018

Cancer bill is an unfunded mandate for volunteer fire companies

It’s been written here before about the considerable woes facing volunteer fire departments (VFDs) across the Empire State.

With less than one-of-every-five New Yorkers volunteering for anything (be it firefighting, little league, or the local soup kitchen), VFD’s have found it difficult to maintain their ranks. Fire and emergency squads throughout the state have held annual recruitment events in recent years in hope of adding personnel and results haven’t come close to approaching expectations. The continued decline in volunteerism has led to more work on fewer firefighters, lengthy response times, and, because of those issues, the very real potential for expanded disasters that put them and the public at risk.

One thing that often gets overlooked in this mess is the financial impact smaller rosters have on VFDs.

It takes a lot of money to maintain, purchase, and replace equipment. With fewer firefighters and a similar decline in social members, there aren’t enough people to run fundraisers such as raffles and chicken barbeques. Some local fire companies have even been forced to shut down their bingo operations that were mainstays of their communities – the income for the departments was decent but you can’t run bingo without workers.

So, it’s an all-encompassing crisis that is felt at the fire and behind the scenes in the board meetings. Every man and woman matters. Every dollar matters. They don’t have enough of any of them.

Matters only look to get worse on the financial front come January.

And, it comes from the least-expected of causes – a law that was supposed to protect firefighters.

In the 2017 legislative session in Albany both houses passed a bill – the New York state volunteer firefighter gap coverage cancer disability benefits act – that grants extended compensation for firemen who are diagnosed with cancer through the duties of their volunteerism. Anyone who has served as an interior firefighter for 5 years will be eligible. Firefighters afflicted with cancer will be eligible for three benefits: one, a lump sum payment ranging from $6,250 to $25,000; two, a disability payment of $1,500 a month for up to 36 months; and, three, in the event of passing from cancer, the family would receive a one-time payment of $50,000.

It’s a well-deserved series of benefits as these brave souls are subjected to an amalgamation of burning chemicals at any fire, whether it’s in a residence or in a factory. Being a volunteer can be a deadly calling.

The law’s passage was met with great fanfare; that is, until it was found out that fire companies, not the state itself, have to fund the now-mandatory insurance. It was originally thought that Albany would fund the program as it didn’t say otherwise in the language of the Assembly’s and Senate’s bills.

So, it was a surprise afterthought that put the burden on VFDs and their municipalities. Or was it? After all, unfunded mandates are par for the course in state government, best exemplified by local funding of Medicaid.

This shift of funding will pain the already-crippled fire departments. The insurance is not cheap. In Georgia, where a similar measure passed, it cost $300 a head. Some larger fire companies might have 30 interior fighters. Even the smallest, most-rural VFDs in New York might have 10 men and women eligible for coverage. Across that range, VFDs will be looking at added expenses ranging from $3,000 to $9,000 per year.

How do they “find” that amount of money? It will take extra fundraisers and boot drives, impossible tasks if VFDs are already abandoning some income streams because of a lack of personnel. It will also require towns and villages, beleaguered by a state-mandated tax cap, to kick in more dollars.

Time is of the essence to find a solution. There is now less than 3 months to go to budget that money to meet the new cost for 2019 and beyond. It won’t be easy. Firefighters deserve this benefit, but they don’t deserve the stress and struggle of trying to fund it on their own.

If you truly value the service and safety that your local fire company provides, help them – if not in the form of your time or a donation, reach out to state officials and demand that they reconsider this unfunded mandate and put its funding on the state and not on the backs of the very people the cancer bill is supposed to serve.

From the 15 October 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Amazon’s wage hike not all it’s cracked up to be

Last week, internet retailer Amazon was the darling of the press and a good many politicians of left persuasion when the company announced it was hiking its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The praise was heaped upon Amazon quite mightily, as the corporate giant’s move fed the narratives around the Fight for Fifteen and many thought CEO Jeff Bezos was showing a brand of benevolent leadership that other companies should follow.

Let’s hope they don’t.

Amazon’s $15 push is at best a half-hearted attempt to improve the financial outcomes of their employees. It’s more of a charade, an excellent marketing ploy that, in the first week, has looked pretty darn effective in endearing the company to the masses.

Giving their employees an extra $1 to $2.50 will do little to advance their lot in life if a great number of them are not given full-time hours and benefits.

Last month and again this past Saturday, Amazon held job fairs to attempt to hire hundreds of part-time workers for their fulfillment center in Lancaster. The job posting is still open on websites like Indeed where it shows three shifts of availability, each one only 4 hours in length. If someone is working 5 days, that’s a 20-hour week. If someone gets a sixth day (the help wanted ad does say at least one weekend day is mandatory), you’re talking 24 hours a week.

That’s a far cry from a standard 40-hour workweek and the potential for overtime that exists in other workplaces. Earnings are one-half to 60 percent of what they would be elsewhere at a similar rate of pay for a full-time week, considerably more for an overtime week.

The proof is in the pudding: Reports show that the median -- not mean -- annual pay for Amazon’s half-million workers was just over $28,400 last year. So, half their workforce earns less than that.

Hiring hundreds of part-timers in the local warehouse, just as it is done at their other fulfillment centers, rather than half as many full-timers is a business decision done to not only keep overtime costs down but also to mitigate the impact of benefits. In the job market, full-time workers expect and deserve benefits. Unfortunately, benefits of any import are rarely extended to part-timers by anyone, and Amazon is taking full advantage of that.

You can see that by downloading the company’s benefits overview. Part-time employees are granted 6 paid holidays, another benefit they call generous unpaid time off (there’s nothing generous about unpaid vacations), dental and vision for the worker only (not her family), and $500 per year to spend on medical expenses, which means no health insurance is funded ($500 won’t put a dent in a $16,000 family plan).

It’s no wonder Amazon had come under fire in recent years for having impoverished employees who, despite the company’s wealth ($177.9 billion in revenues last year), disproportionately rely on SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid. An April report by the Intercepter found that Amazon was the 28th largest employer in Arizona but it ranked 5th for the number of employees enrolled in SNAP. It held the 5th slot in Pennsylvania as well, though it’s only the 19th largest employer. In Ohio, Amazon ranked 53rd in overall employment but 19th when it came to employees using SNAP.

That’s an outcome of low hours and low benefits. Going to $15 an hour won’t help if opportunity for either isn’t there.

Yet, that same company which was just labeled the bad guy months ago for the SNAP abuses is now looked at as the hero and has vowed to take up the fight to raise the legal standards. Jay Carney, senior vice president of Amazon global corporate affairs, said in a statement, "We intend to advocate for a minimum wage increase that will have a profound impact on the lives of tens of millions of people and families across this country."

This coming from a company that does an end around to not make their workers’ lives fulfilling enough, all while receiving, since 2000, more than $1.1 billion in tax breaks from local and state governments in the US.

Is that the sort of capitalist heroism policymakers and workers want to hold up as being virtuous?

If you want economic heroes look to the small business driven by ethics as much as the bottom line – your local factories, restaurants, retailers, contractors, etc. -- that pay a decent wage, have a steady 40-hour week, offer overtime, grant paid vacations, issue bonuses, and fund health insurance either in-part or whole. They’re the ones really making a difference in the lives of America’s working families.  

From the 08 October 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and the Batavia Daily News