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Colorado Democrats Want to Enhance Protections for Agricultural Workers

Will farm workers soon get more protections in Colorado?
Will farm workers soon get more protections in Colorado?
Helen Thorpe
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Democrats in the Colorado Legislature are pushing a bill that would enhance protections for agricultural workers, a category that doesn't have many of the same employee rights as other industries.

"Instead of being grateful to them, we treat them as being expendable. If you break, no problem, we’ll replace you," says Angeles Mendez, regional organizer for the Western Slope for Project Protect Food Systems, a Colorado organization dedicated to ensuring that agricultural workers are protected while they work. "At what point will we start treating people like people, like humans, instead of modern slavery?"

Senate Bill 087 would give agricultural workers the right to unionize and strike, and also make them eligible to be paid Colorado's minimum wage, which is currently $12.32 per hour. (Certain municipalities have a higher rate.) SB-087 would also regulate overtime pay for agricultural workers and mandate scheduled meal breaks and rest periods. If the bill becomes law, aggrieved workers would have a legal path to remedy violations.

Close to half of Colorado's agricultural workers are excluded from minimum-wage protections, the bill notes, which is just one of the many ways in which farm and livestock workers in this state have fewer workplace rights and benefits than people working in most other industries. That's largely because the Fair Labor Standards Act, created by the federal government in 1938, still exempts many workers, including people "on the range in the production of livestock" and "hand harvest laborers" paid on a "piece rate basis," according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"This is a carveout that should not exist. It certainly should not exist in 2021," says Senator Jessie Danielson, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge who is serving as a prime sponsor of the bill. "What other employers have this carveout? It’s basically just for agricultural workers and domestic workers. You can tell how the roots of this unjust law are founded in a fairly racist culture."

The bill would apply to fewer than a quarter of the farms in Colorado: Only 23 percent of the 9,000 farms in the state hire labor, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even so, there are about 40,000 agricultural workers in Colorado, many of whom are originally from Mexico and are either living permanently in the U.S. or are here on a temporary agricultural worker visa.

"Colorado is behind the curve," says Nicole Civita, a University of Colorado sustainable food systems instructor and co-founder of Project Protect Food Systems; she notes that some states have already created the various protections for agricultural workers stipulated in this bill. "If we put a couple more dollars in the hands of workers, workers are more able to participate in the local economies of the regions of the state that they work in."

One aspect of the bill, a prohibition on the use of the short-handled hoe, has been in place in California since 1975; numerous other states have also limited its applications. "The tool requires agricultural workers to labor for eight, ten, sometimes twelve hours in a fully hunched-over position," says Civita. Workers refer to the tool as "el brazo del diablo," or "the devil's arm" because of the deleterious effects that working with it can have, she adds.

SB-087, which will be heard March 17, already has plenty of opponents lining up — and no Republican supporters.

The bill is "too broad and far-reaching," according to Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, and "will result in dramatic negative consequences for those who grow our food."

And Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, argues that the proposal is "more egregious than any labor law seen in Colorado to date" and will "harm the mutually beneficial relationship between employee and employer that the vast majority of agriculture currently enjoys."

His organization is "willing to work on minimum wage, overtime and other reasonable measures for employees and employers," Fankhauser adds.

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which represents around 20,000 members, most of them family farmers and ranchers in Colorado, is also opposed to the measure, but a bit less strident in its opposition.

"If you listen to the reasoning behind the bill, it’s awfully hard to oppose this thing on face value," says Dan Waldvogle, director of external affairs for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. "We believe there’s a bigger picture here that we need to take into account."

Waldvogle's organization agrees that it's sensible to require farm workers to be paid the state minimum wage — which Waldvogle says is generally the case — and that there should be protections for workers, such as the ability to whistleblow without fear of retaliation. Still, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union would like to see the bill amended to create more compromise among farmers and ranchers and their employees.

"We’re asking that there be a little more, across this entire provision, more of a rule-making process. The intent would be baked into the bill, but the [Colorado Department of Labor and Employment] would have more authority to promulgate rules," explains Waldvogle. That way, a broad stakeholder group, comprising farmers, ranchers and workers, could pursue an "intentional thoughtful process to get this right" on aspects like the overtime provisions, he suggests.

The Colorado Senate Business, Labor, & Technology committee will debate the merits of the bill at 1:30 p.m. today, March 17. While the committee will hear speakers, there aren't likely to be any agricultural workers speaking in favor of the bill.

"Because of the culture that has been allowed to exist for such a long time, these people are terrified, terrified of coming forward with any of these problems because the retribution is so swift," explains Danielson, who comes from a Colorado farming family.

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