In 104-degree heat, laborers weed between rows of hemp plants and Shi Farms in Pueblo. Seasonal workers are hired on for 5 months at a time, and this is the prime season. "I wanted this manager position so I could take care of these guys," Shi Farms manager David Quintanar, a Pueblo local whose parents immigrated from Mexico before he was born, said in 2019. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By James Anderson, The Associated Press

Thousands of immigrant farmworkers in Colorado will soon have state minimum wage, overtime and labor organizing rights under Senate Bill 87, signed into law Friday by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.

Polis also signed into law a measure to create a state fund to help indigent immigrants get legal representation in deportation proceedings. The twin measures are part of a raft of bills passed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature to boost immigrant rights.

Other measures becoming law Friday will make it easier for immigrants to obtain state and local benefits; obtain licenses to work as child care providers and other professions as well as business licenses; and prevent state agencies from sharing personal information with federal immigration enforcement authorities, with certain exceptions such as criminal investigations or under court order.

Under the farmworkers law, agricultural business owners must provide employee housing that conforms to pandemic guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They must provide meal and rest breaks and limit the maximum number of hours worked by their employees.

Farmworkers in several U.S. states have collective bargaining rights to some extent — rights originally denied them on the basis of skin color under U.S. labor laws first adopted in the 1930s. Colorado now joins that group. The law also offers whistleblower protections for workers reporting unduly harsh or unsafe conditions.

“Colorado’s agricultural workers have been exploited for far too long in this state, and it’s well beyond time for us to provide them with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Democratic Sen. Jessie Danielson, a driving force behind the new law who was raised on a family farm in northern Colorado.

Under pressure from agricultural interests, sponsors of the legislation dropped language mandating that farmworkers immediately get the state minimum wage, currently $12.32 an hour, and overtime for those working more than 40 hours a week. But the law removes longstanding regulations exempting farm labor from minimum wage laws and directs the state labor department to devise pay, overtime and maximum working hour rules. Range workers will get a minimum of $1,500 a week.

It also bans the use of a short-handled hoe known in Spanish as “el brazo del diablo,” or the devil’s arm. The hoe has long been the bane of sugar beet, lettuce and other crop workers. It forces backbreaking work by laborers who must stoop day after day, often resulting in permanent injury. California banned its use in the 1970s, and Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have followed suit.

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.

Dozens of supporters such as the Colorado Farmworkers’ Rights Coalition and Latino advocacy groups hailed the law as a continuation of the United Farm Workers movement led decades ago by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta during California’s famed farmworker labor struggles. Huerta lobbied for the Colorado bill.

Many groups representing Colorado’s $47 billion agriculture industry argued the law would punish farmers who operate on thin margins and confront volatile market prices and weather that can threaten crops and livestock. They argued — and bill sponsors agreed — that a vast majority of farmers and ranchers treat their workers appropriately.

The industry employs an estimated 50,000 people.

Polis also signed into law a bill creating a state fund — initially $100,000 — to provide legal counsel to indigent immigrants, including seekers of refugee and asylum status, in deportation proceedings that often can last months or years. The state would issue grants to non-profit organizations that provide legal advice to immigrants who would otherwise have no legal counsel. Many of the immigrants have lived in the U.S. for years.

Under federal law, people in immigration proceedings have no right to legal counsel. At least seven states — California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington — have similar funds, and an estimated 35 jurisdictions in 18 states as well, including Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

Advocates say having legal counsel speeds up the resolution of asylum, refugee and other immigration cases in a backlogged court system, including the cases of those who should face deportation.

Polis also signed a bill creating an Office of New Americans to oversee the state’s refugee resettlement program and to coordinate with private sector agencies on immigration issues.

The Associated Press