Colorado Senate panel advances farmworker wages, rights bill


DENVER | A Colorado state Senate panel advanced a bill Wednesday that would grant minimum wage and overtime rights to thousands of farmworkers and allow those workers to organize and join labor unions.

The bill, sponsored by three Democratic lawmakers, would regulate working hours for overtime, rest and eating breaks, and guarantee farmworkers living in cramped quarters space in those quarters that conforms with distancing guidelines recommended by health authorities to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Several U.S. states allow farmworkers collective bargaining to some extent — among the many rights originally denied them on the basis of skin color under U.S. labor laws first adopted in the 1930s.

Last year, Washington became the first state to grant farmworkers overtime protections through the courts. California is phasing in some overtime protections, while New York last year began requiring overtime pay when farmworkers work more than 60 hours in a week. Maryland and Minnesota also offer overtime protections to farmworkers.

“Generations of workers have been exploited for profit,” said Sen. Jessie Danielson, a bill co-sponsor who was raised on a family farm in northern Colorado.

Danielson told the Senate Business, Labor, and Technology Committee that most farmers and ranchers treat their workers well. But she cited a litany of abuse, including relentless work hours in all weather conditions, substandard housing, lack of regular access to medical care and the fear of retribution, including firing, for workers who complain about their labor and living conditions.

“The pandemic brought the struggle of these essential workers to the forefront,” Danielson said.

Organizations representing much of Colorado’s $8 billion agriculture industry oppose the bill, arguing that it would impose financial hardships on individual farmers who often operate on thin margins because they are at the mercy of volatile market prices and weather conditions that can threaten their crops and livestock.

“Our members and workers’ hours often are determined by weather — trying to protect animals and crops from hail, or from the freezing that we saw on the Western Slope that devastated the peach crop last year,” said Taylor Szilagyi, spokeswoman for the Colorado Farm Bureau, an industry advocacy group. “In these emergencies, it’s all hands on deck, and our workers don’t fit into a regular 8-to-5 job.”

Wednesday’s 4-3 vote sent the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The AFL-CIO, the Colorado Farmworkers’ Rights Coalition and dozens of labor and Latino advocacy groups supported the bill, many arguing it’s a continuation of the United Farm Workers movement established decades ago by Cesar Chavez during California’s famed farmworker labor struggles.

The bill would grant farmworkers the state minimum wage, currently $12.32 an hour; require overtime for anyone working more than 40 hours a week or 12 hours a day; and require meal breaks, rest periods and, in hot weather, access to drinking water.

It would severely restrict the use of a short-handled hoe, known in Spanish as “el brazo del diablo,” or the devil’s arm. The hoe has been the bane of sugar beet, lettuce and other crop workers because its use forces laborers to engage in backbreaking work by stooping day after day, year after year, often resulting in permanent injury. California banned its use in the 1970s; Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have instituted similar bans.

The bill would offer protections for workers reporting unduly harsh or unsafe conditions and require the state to create rules to oversee the bill’s provisions, field complaints and act on behalf of aggrieved farmworkers when needed.

Some farming groups said they weren’t consulted on the legislation. But Nicole Civita, policy director for the advocacy group Project Protect Food Systems, insisted that bill backers had reached out to the agriculture sector from the beginning. Danielson, too, repeatedly urged bill opponents during the hearing to work with her.

“We’re not talking about benefits or perks or vacation. We’re talking about the bare minimum of money needed to keep yourself alive,” said Valerie Collins, a former National Labor Relations Board attorney now with a nonprofit labor law firm.