On Monday, Colorado’s Department of Labor proposed that our state’s agricultural workers be excluded from the basic workplace protections afforded other Colorado workers, including minimum wage and overtime.  This isn’t right.  As a Board Member at the Hispanic Affairs Project, I speak with farmworkers across Western Colorado and I know that they deserve the same rights as other Colorado workers.

Agricultural workers in Colorado work long hours, earn low wages, and are disproportionately subjected to workplace abuse.  Many of them don’t speak English, the vast majority lack health insurance, and the average farmworker earns between $17,500 and $19,900 (as of 2016).  That is not enough to support a family, but gone are the days when single workers migrated from farm to farm.  Today, the vast majority of farmworkers have spent over 10 years in our communities, their children attend our schools and their spouses work as our colleagues.  These are not transient folks, but our neighbors who deserve the same workplace rights as everyone else.

Agricultural employers may complain that increasing workplace protections will increase costs for farmers.  But the average Colorado farm wage in 2018 was already $13.25, which is above the state minimum wage.  That means that mandating that minimum wage rates apply to farm workers wouldn’t mean increase costs for the vast majority of businesses that pay fair and competitive wages.  Instead, it would provide farmworkers with access to state administrative resources if they are victims of wage theft, and it would clarify their rights.  Today’s overlapping legal requirements not only lets too many farmworkers fall through the cracks, they are also confusing.  Simple expansion of minimum wage protections would make things easier for both employers and employees.

Extending overtime rights to farmworkers could increase the 14% of total cash expenses that Colorado farms dedicate to labor costs, but the practical and moral case for extending those rights is compelling.  Practically, physically demanding work out in the elements creates a distinct propensity for serious workplace injury if we fail to protect the 40 hour work week.  Such injuries can be life altering for workers and expensive for farmers.     Morally, extending overtime rights in our state gives Colorado the opportunity to fight back against a long history of farmworker marginalization.  For example, historians have noted that racism toward black farmworkers in the south drove the farmworker exclusion from federal labor standards back in the 1930’s.  Colorado should not codify exemptions rooted in such a troubled history. 

Finally, shepherds deserve the same protections as other workers regardless of their visa status. There are about 300 shepherds in Colorado at any given time.  These workers are uniquely vulnerable in that they often spend months at a time living alone on the open range where they are completely dependent on their employer for food, transportation, and human contact.  I have met too many herders whose circumstances were made even worse by employer exploitation ranging from the failure to deliver adequate food, to the failure to transport for necessary medical care, to outright human trafficking.  While the Colorado sheep industry generates $63.30 million in output each year, the sheep ranches can absorb the modest wage increase necessary to offer their shepherds the basic hallmarks of workplace dignity.  

We have until December 31, 2019 to encourage the state to rethink its proposed exclusion of farmworkers from basic workplace rights.  Join me.  

Signed by Tom Acker, HAP Board President