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A New Law Grants Key Rights to Colorado’s Agricultural Workers

The initiative includes safeguards that most nine-to-fivers take for granted.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established the 40-hour workweek, mandatory overtime pay, and child labor restrictions. But FDR intentionally omitted farmworkers—overwhelmingly Black sharecroppers at the time (today, 83 percent are Hispanic)—from the rules in exchange for Southern votes. More than 80 years later, Colorado’s agricultural workforce is finally receiving similar safeguards thanks to the Agricultural Workers’ Rights act, which Governor Jared Polis signed in June. This month, the state Department of Labor and Employment will begin the public comment period for the new overtime rules, the final parameters that need to be decided before the law goes fully into effect in 2022. To better understand the rights local farmworkers are gaining, we asked Jenifer Rodriguez, the managing attorney of the Migrant Farm Workers Division of the nonprofit Colorado Legal Services, to translate the bill’s legalese into easily understandable numbers.

10: Minutes of break time that farmworkers will now be guaranteed for every four hours worked. They’ll also receive 30-minute unpaid meal breaks every five hours. “Every [other type of worker] gets a 30-minute unpaid lunch or dinner after they’ve worked five hours,” Rodriguez says, “and now farmworkers will get that too.”

53 to 67: Average hours per week Colorado’s 40,000-plus agricultural workers spend in the fields during peak growing season, according to a 2021 brief co-written by Colorado State University economist Alexandra Hill. The new law will nix exemptions that shielded employers from paying overtime. Agricultural companies say the added expenses could raise their labor costs by up to 30 percent, eating away at already-thin profit margins.

10: Inches, in length, of the short-handled hoe often called el cortito (the short one) by farmworkers of Latino descent. Some scholars contend the implement has been used by companies to subjugate workers: Laborers who stood up could be seen by employers as taking a break. Chicano civil rights leader Cesar Chavez led a successful campaign to have the hoes outlawed in California in 1975, and the Agricultural Workers’ Rights act will make Colorado the fifth state in the country to prohibit el cortito.

20: Rate at which farmworkers are more likely to die from heat-related illnesses than any other type of American employee, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Agricultural Workers’ Rights law mandates that employers provide “overwork and health protections”—which Rodriguez says could be as simple as sufficient water, misters, and shade—to protect laborers from extreme heat.

38,893: Farms and ranches in Colorado, the majority of which are small-scale operations and, according to Hill’s brief, more likely than large employers to pay workers less than $12 an hour (farmworkers are exempt from the state’s minimum wage, which is currently $12.32). The Agricultural Workers’ Rights legislation extends the Colorado minimum wage to all farm laborers.

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