OLATHE — Erasmo Cano downs a bottled drink and dumps the dregs of packaged cookies into his mouth before he climbs out of the van where he and his coworkers have been taking a 15-minute shade break. It was a brief escape from pulling weeds in a 14-acre field where his crew has been toiling since 5:30 this morning. They have more than an hour to go in a 10-hour shift of chopping and pulling a thick scrum of weeds growing around spiky onion tops.
Hoes glint in the sun as they pick up where they left off and make their way down the furrowed lines moving silently to the thump of mariachi music from a portable stereo. The workers are draped in hoodies, bandanas, hats, gloves and long pants — their cover from the relentless sun.
Cano has no complaints.
“Me gusta trabajar,” he says. “I like to work.”
Most of this crew are seasonal farmworkers from Guanajuato, Mexico, here on temporary visas called H2-As. They say they prefer to work 10- to 12-hour days — heat wave or not. “Más horas, más dinero,” Cano says. “More hours, more money.” The goal is to make as much money as possible in the few months their visas allow them to work at Tuxedo Corn Company farms. The pay makes it worth it for them to travel the 1,530 miles from central Mexico to Western Colorado’s Uncompahgre Valley — some for as many as 18 summers.
But this season, the Farmworkers’ Bill of Rights that was signed into law after passing through the Colorado state Capitol five hours from these fields will significantly impact working conditions for Cano and the more than 40,000 farmworkers in Colorado, an estimated three-quarters of them Mexican and Central American migrant workers.
Cano and his fellow workers look at each other in confusion when asked what they think about the new law. They shrug their shoulders. They are not aware of it.
Their working lives in the United States are already covered by 567 pages of federal regulations that spell out exactly what employers must supply to H2-A workers. The rules ensure they get decent housing, medical care and transportation. H2-A workers earn a minimum wage of $14.82 an hour, or nearly $1,100 a week.
The new state law adds extra layers of rules and rights. These workers are now included in the historic rights that are afforded other workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In Colorado, the minimum wage rate of $12.32 now applies to farmworkers who don’t already make more than that.
Overtime pay is guaranteed, though how much and after how many hours is a contentious detail still to be worked out. It requires worker housing to be safe and open to visitors and farmworker advocates. It specifies that workers not already covered by H2-A visa rules have access to health care and legal aid. It gives workers the right to form unions and protects whistleblowers from retribution. The law creates rights and enforcement actions for abused agricultural workers. It establishes an Ag Worker Advisory Committee to keep tabs on how workers are faring.
The new law also sets the lengths of breaks and meals, mandates how much clean water and shade each worker must have while on the job, and prohibits the use of short-handled hoes, so called “stoop labor” tools that have already been outlawed in Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico.
Agricultural employers say the new rules go too far in trying to make farm labor fit into the more easily controlled operations of other industries. In the Tuxedo Corn vegetable fields, a gap between the new state law and the realities of farm work is already obvious. No short-handled hoes mean some workers simply bend over and grab their long hoes a few feet from the blades — the better to hack at stubborn weeds.
Ag operations say the new state law could hike labor costs by 30%
Backers of the new legislation say it is the most groundbreaking change in more than a generation for the farmworkers toiling in Colorado fields, feedlots, orchards, dairies and rangelands. Opponents call it onerous and say it will damage an estimated $47 billion state industry.
“These are human beings that labor in extreme conditions,” said Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge who grew up “a 4-H kid” on a multi-generational farm in Weld County. “For 85 years, these workers have been excluded from basic rights afforded to other workers. They have been exploited for far too long.”
Danielson, who spearheaded the legislation, said she spent years cataloging stories of farmworker abuse before crafting a bill that passed on mostly party lines with many amendments.
Senate Bill 87 drew the support of social-justice, legal, environmental, human-rights, faith-based and agriculture-related groups. Opponents included large agricultural producers, major farm advocacy groups, chambers of commerce, and agricultural-sector lobbyists.
Agricultural employers who oppose the new law say it will increase their labor costs 20% to 30%. It may force them to cut back on their operations. The law, they say, doesn’t take into account how weather, harvest and livestock schedules and other vagaries of farming can’t be slotted neatly into hour restrictions, particularly in Colorado with its short growing season and now, with its drought conditions.
“These rules are above and beyond what any other industry has to do,” said Grand Junction cattle rancher Janie VanWinkle after describing a recent dawn-to-dusk “dusty and miserable” day of moving drought-suffering cattle to high-country pastures. She and her family worked alongside their hired help to save the cattle. Watching a time clock would be ridiculous in those circumstances, she noted. Hewing to time restrictions might force the VanWinkles to cut back on their 500-head herd, she said.
“That’s always the go-to response of any industry facing new regulations,” said Pete Kolbenschlag, director of the Colorado Food and Farm Alliance, a group that splits its support for farmworkers with efforts to promote prosperity for agriculture producers and rural farming communities. The Alliance was one of 95 organizations that came down on the side of supporting the Farmworker Bill of Rights.
“This is people from the city telling us how to do things,” said David Harold, who with his father, John, operates the Tuxedo Corn Company that employs about 200 workers each summer. The Harolds are the largest employer of farm workers in the Uncompahgre Valley.
John Harold is a lifelong active Democrat who marched in the streets of New York City in support of teachers’ unionizing half a century ago and who continues to trumpet his left-leaning political views with a large Biden/Harris sign outside his U.S. 50-facing packing shed in Olathe. He admits he is butting heads with his own political tribe on this issue. But it threatens to push his costs 250% higher than states he competes against.
“As far as I am concerned,” John Harold said, “this is the poorest piece of legislation introduced this year.”
Bruce Talbott of Talbott Farms, the largest fruit-growing operation in the state, hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum, but is also critical of the new law.
“If you make it difficult for employers, they are going to lose farms,” Talbott said. “If you make it tough for workers, they are going to go to other states.”
“They threw the smorgasbord into this bill. It is a lawyer’s dream,” he added. “What is conspicuously absent are the voices of the ag laborers.”
No one asked Cano his opinion. He was in Guanajuato when hearings took place last spring in the Senate Committee on Business, Labor and Technology.
When asked now by a reporter if he feels his employer treats him well, he responds, “bien” with a vigorous nod of his head. The other men nearby echo his opinion. “Bien.” Bien,” they repeat one after another.
“Todo está bien,” says Maria Perez as she neatly folds a bandana and ties it over her face before heading back into the fields after her break. “All is well.” She leaves her cousin, another Maria Perez, resting in the backseat of their SUV because the heat is making her feel ill. Her boss would not object, she says while holding a wet cloth to her head.
Statehouse claims of worker mistreatment pain employers
Stories about worker abuses and hazardous working conditions that figured in the promotion of the legislation were gathered by a group called Project Protect Food Systems Workers. The group has a network of “promotoras” around the state. These promotoras were organized during the COVID-19 pandemic to help educate farmworkers and to hand out hygiene supplies and food boxes. Their mission of advocating for health equity for agricultural workers expanded to include gathering information about working conditions.
Promotoras testified before the legislative committees about suspected abuse that included a worker near Greeley who drowned in a manure pit on a dairy farm; a young girl in the San Luis Valley who suffered fatal smoke inhalation in a fire in employer-provided housing; an onion farm in LaSalle that purportedly imprisoned workers in their housing with razor-wire fences; an Olathe worker who was not allowed to seek medical help for kidney stones.
Employers say promotoras did not seek input from them and misrepresented some of those stories: the razor wire was to keep out vandals during the off-season, not to keep workers in.
The worker with a kidney stone was employed at the Harolds’ farm. David Harold said the man was given the option of going to a local hospital, but insisted he wanted to go back to Mexico for treatment. He did not want to pay the $750 the hospital was demanding upfront for treatment.
The Harolds ended up paying for a portion of the cost after the worker finally agreed to seek local treatment. The worker had the stones removed and continued to work for the Harolds for the remainder of the season and returned this year.
Manuel Saldana, who has come from Guanajuato to work for the Harolds for 18 seasons and functions as a sort of unofficial farm boss, sputtered and expressed shock when he heard that legislators were told one of the Harolds’ workers was not allowed to go to the hospital.
“I took him to the hospital myself,” Saldana said. “We always get the medical treatment we need. I hit my head two years ago and John Harold took me to the hospital himself, and he paid for it.”
Representatives from the Project Protect organization did not respond to requests for comment about the promotoras’ work.
Danielson said she believes most farmworkers won’t come forward and talk about problems they encounter on the job because they are frightened of losing their jobs and suffering other punishments.
“They are so terrified of retribution,” she said. Danielson said when they are able to talk anonymously, they tell horror stories.
That pains longtime producers like the Harolds and VanWinkle.
The Harolds and VanWinkle said they have worked hard to treat their workers well.
“We provide everything but the clothes on our workers’ backs,” VanWinkle said. “They are very much connected to our operation. They are very much a part of our family.” VanWinkle gave an example: her family set up a college fund for the firstborn child of a Mexican worker after he had worked for them for seven seasons.
Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, represents farm country and voted against the bill with a criticism that a few bad-apple agricultural employers could be dealt with through legal means. From the Senate floor last spring, he also blasted the lack of farm input.
“Get off the sidewalk and get out in my county,” he said.
Danielson said she believes the agriculture sector had plenty of opportunities to weigh in on the bill.
“To claim that this new law was made without input from Colorado producers and opponents of the bill is blatantly false,” she said. “The concept of the bill was shared with producers and associations representing them back in January, prior to any draft of the bill.” She said she invited all the large associations to give their feedback and then incorporated some of their suggested changes. That feedback resulted in 30 amendments.
Key provisions of the Farmworker Bill of Rights are now in the rulemaking phase when those complaining their voices weren’t taken into account will have a chance to give input. Between now and the end of October, The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Division of Labor Standards and Statistics is gathering input on specific parts of the legislation, including one of the most contentious: overtime pay.
Scott Moss, director of the division, has already met with workers at Talbott Farms and with industry representatives at the recent Colorado Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting. He has meetings with the Colorado Wool Growers Association and the Colorado Farm Bureau in the coming week. In the coming months, he said he and his team will be visiting more farms, scheduling meetings with any groups wanting to give input, and reviewing an expected heap of written comments.
He said the rulemaking process will give more workers a chance to weigh in. He expects those workers to be anonymously candid in spite of Danielson’s fears that they can’t speak up.
“That is a phenomenon in any industry. Some workers will have fears,” he said. “We have ways to address that.”
Moss said his division will be issuing a fact sheet for workers spelling out the major points of the legislation for those who aren’t familiar with it. It will be available in Spanish as well as English.
That may help Cano and his coworkers know if there is anything they would like to see improved in their work days — and if there are any changes they would like to speak against.
They say they would not want to be limited to a 40-hour week. They are happy now to have one afternoon off a week to treat themselves to a restaurant lunch. Aside from that, they prefer to work.
“Es mejor trabajar,” worker Alejandro Seria says as he wields his hoe against weeds. “It is better to work.”
Editor’s note: The workers quoted in this story were interviewed in Spanish, far from the bosses’ view. In some cases, a bilingual worker helped to interpret their answers.
Correction: This story was updated July 28, 20201, at 10:31 a.m. to correctly report the employment status of a worker who was treated last year for kidney stones. He returned to work at Tuxedo Corn this year.