Expanding the pool of available farm labor in the country is a key challenge that should be addressed, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday while addressing a conference of agriculture officials. 

But Vilsack is also staying out of a contentious debate in New York over lowering the overtime threshold for farm workers from 60 hours a week to 40 -- a move supported by labor unions and advocates like the New York Civil Liberties Union, but opposed by farmers. 

"Often times in other industries, 40 hours does sort of appear to be the threshold for when overtime kicks in," Vilsack told reporters on Tuesday. "Our job from a labor perspective isn't so much to comment on whether 40 hours or 60 hours is the right overtime number. Our job is to figure out how we can expand the workforce."

The added costs will be offset with a state subsidy and the lowered threshold to 40 hours will be phased in over a decade.

Nevertheless, the move has angered farmers as well as Republican lawmakers. In Congress, Rep. Elise Stefanik has signaled plans to block the change legislatively.  

Supporters have argued the change is necessary to reverse a decades-long exclusion of laborers from overtime laws. Farmers contend their businesses do not operate on a traditional, 40-hour-a-week schedule. 

Vilsack said the issue should be left to the state. He's pushing Congress to approve a measure meant to overhaul a federal temporary worker program to expand the labor pool for farmers. Industries across the economy have struggled with a tight labor market in the wake of the pandemic. 

"If you pass that act then you're going to have significantly greater numbers of people working in agriculture and the issue of overtime may not be as much of a challenge for farmers or for states," Vilsack said. 

A final decision on the overtime change is expected in the coming months. For now, state Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball is not publicly commenting on the merits. 

But in an interview, he noted the wage board at the state Department of Labor was split over whether to advance the overtime change. 

"It was a split decision," he said. "Not unanimous at all and we'll see where we go with that before we comment on it."