Hernandez v. State, 99 N.Y.S.3d 795 (App. Div. 2019)
On appeal, a New York court held that the State Employment Relations Act, which excludes farm laborers from protections for organizing and bargaining collectively through representatives of their own choosing, violates their state constitutional rights as guaranteed in Article I, §17 of the New York constitution. After an analysis of legislative intent, the historical record, and the placement of this right within the Bill of Rights, the Court further held that the right to organize and collectively bargain was a fundamental right which demands a strict scrutiny review.
Crispin Hernandez – a farmworker who was fired after organizing discussions on conditions at work – and two advocacy organizations, the Workers’ Center of Central New York (“WCCNY”) and the Worker Justice Center of New York (“WJCNY”), brought a lawsuit against the governor and the State of New York alleging that the exclusion of farmworkers from the State Employment Relations Act (“SERA”) was unconstitutional. Plaintiffs argued that the exclusion of farm workers from SERA violated several provisions of the New York Constitution, including the Article I, §17 right of employees to organize and collectively bargain through representatives of their own choosing. When the state defendants announced that they did not intend to defend the constitutionality of the farm laborer exclusion, New York Farm Bureau, an agricultural advocacy organization primarily comprised of agricultural employers, intervened as a defendant. They countered that Article I, §17 was adopted shortly after SERA, and should therefore be interpreted using SERA’s narrow definition of employee that excludes farmworkers.
The Court emphasized the importance of adopting a clear interpretation that aligns with the drafters’ intent. The choice to use the broad definition of “employees” in Article I, §17 as opposed to expressly adopting the SERA definition indicated to the Court that the drafters intended to include farmworkers in the constitutional right to organize and collectively bargain. The defendants further argued that even if farmworkers are determined to be employees under Article I, §17, the right to organize and collectively bargain is not a fundamental right. The Court disagreed, finding that the express enumeration of the right within the Bill of Rights to be a signal that the right is fundamental in nature. As a fundamental right, the exclusion of farmworkers from SERA’s framework must survive a strict scrutiny analysis. Finding that the exclusion of farmworkers was not narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest, the Court held the exclusion to be unconstitutional.
In its decision, the Court declared the exclusion of farm workers from SERA a clear violation of the workers’ fundamental rights guaranteed by the New York Constitution and chose not to remand the case for further proceedings. Once acknowledged as employees, the farmers’ fundamental right to organize was automatically subject to additional protection by the New York Employment Relations Board (“PERB”), a division responsible for investigating SERA violations.
Plaintiffs: Workers’ Center of Central New York; Worker Justice Center of New York
Defendants: The State of New York and Governor Andrew Cuomo
Intervenor – Defendant: The New York Farm Bureau, Inc.
Advocates on behalf of the plaintiffs: ACLU of New York
Amici on behalf of the plaintiffs: Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Centro de los Derechos Del Migrante, Inc., El Comite de Apoyo a Los Trabajodores Agricolas, Justice at Work, Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York, Inc., Legal Services of Central New York, Inc., The National Employment Law Project, The Pennsylvania Farmworker Project, and United Farmworkers of America.
Hernandez v. State guaranteed the fundamental right for over 80,000 farmworkers to organize and collectively bargain through representatives of their own choosing, paving the way for the creation of unions and labor groups. The exclusion of farm workers was originally motivated by racial bias in the 1930s, and left farmworkers subjected to harsh working conditions with little to no job security. The Court’s rejection of this exclusion is a significant step forward for farmworkers in the state of New York. Following the decision in this case, the governor of New York signed into law the Farm Workers Bill. The bill, which took effect in January of 2020, guarantees overtime pay, disability and family leave coverage, one day off per week, and unemployment benefits, among other measures.
For their contributions, special thanks to ESCR-Net members: the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.