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A harvest crew with Tuxedo Corn Company removes the first ears of the company's Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn harvest from a field west of Pea Green Colorado Wednesday July 24, 2019. (William Woody, Special to the Sun)

Colorado lawmakers have approved a major expansion of labor rights for the state’s nearly 40,000 agricultural workers through a measure Gov. Jared Polis appears eager to sign.

Senate Bill 87 would give farm workers the right to organize or join labor unions, earn state minimum wage and overtime pay. It would also protect workers and whistleblowers from retaliation for reporting abuse, among its long list of provisions.  

Here’s a breakdown of what Senate Bill 87 does:

Collective bargaining, working conditions and pay

Colorado’s Labor Peace Act currently exempts agricultural workers from job protections, such as collective bargaining, available to workers in other industries. By eliminating that exemption, Senate Bill 87 would open the door for agricultural workers to organize and join labor unions, engage in collective bargaining, and hold strikes.

It also would require agricultural employers to be subject to state and local minimum wage laws, whereas currently they are required to pay federal minimum wage. Under the measure, workers would get overtime pay and their wages would be adjusted every year based on cost of living increases. 

The bill also would mandate certain working conditions, including by:

  • Requiring periodic bathroom, meal and rest breaks
  • Requiring protections, to be determined by the Department of Labor and Employment, for workers when outdoor temperatures exceed 80℉
  • Limiting the use of short-handled hoes while workers are stooped, kneeling or squatting
  • Limiting when workers can be required to do hand weeding or thinning of vegetation, with requirements for how often they be given rest breaks while performing such work

With the coronavirus pandemic in mind, the bill would also add special requirements for housing during a public health emergency. Those include mandates that housing has windows that open to the outdoors, or have air filtration systems where people sleep. It also would limit how many people can be housed in a given space. 

Access to important services

Migrant workers from Mexico harvest the first ears of the 2020 Tuxedo Corn Company Olathe Sweet sweet corn crop in a field west of Olathe. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Senate Bill 87 would also require employers who already provide housing and transportation to their workers to take them at least once a week to a site where they can access key services, such as a place to make financial transactions, receive health or legal services and access basic necessities. 

The legislation would prohibit employers from interfering with a worker’s ability to have visitors at their employer-provided housing and access key services.

MORE: Colorado farmworkers could get easier access to medical care under new ‘bill of rights’

The bill also would create a committee to analyze the wages and working conditions of agricultural workers. The committee must produce an annual report with findings and recommendations for the General Assembly. 

Protections against abuse and retaliation

Workers and their relatives, or a worker’s representative would be able to file abuse complaints with the Department of Labor and Employment’s Division of Labor Standards. A service provider – like a lawyer or health provider – who is “unable to access” a worker could also file a complaint.

The DOL’s director would be able to investigate those claims and order specific remedies, including payment for damages and attorney’s fees. The DOL could also take legal action against people who retaliate against workers and whistleblowers for reporting abuse. 

People would also be able to file a complaint in district court if the DOL director declines to investigate. 

Some details still to come

Some parts of the bill, such as rules on working conditions and how overtime pay and maximum-hours protections will be established, will be determined by the Department of Labor and Employment during a public rulemaking process.

The Division of Labor Standards must propose those rules by Oct. 31, and adopt them by Jan. 31.

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member. Twitter: @thyanhvo