Recently, Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment released the new draft Overtime and Minimum Pay Standards. These policies govern issues like worker wages, working conditions and break allowances as well as hours and overtime pay.
Unfortunately, under this proposed rule our state’s agricultural workers would 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 have spoken with countless 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 a year 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 farmworkers 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 let too many farmworkers fall through the cracks, they are also confusing. A simple expansion of minimum wage protections would make things easier for both employers and employees.
Physically demanding work out in the elements also creates a distinct propensity for serious workplace injury if we fail to protect the 40-hour workweek. 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.
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.
We have until Dec. 31 to encourage the state to rethink its proposed exclusion of farmworkers from basic workplace rights. I hope Coloradans will join me in supporting protections for these often marginalized workers.
Thomas Acker is the board president of the Hispanic Affairs Project.