Updated: May 21, 2021
For a complete Media Kit with photos and quotes from farm workers and other impacted groups:
Denver, CO: Earlier this week, Senator Jessie Danielson introduced Senate Bill 21-087, the Agricultural Workers’ Rights’ Bill, into the Colorado Senate. The Bill will be sponsored by Representatives Karen McCormick and Yadira Carveo in the House.
For almost a century, agricultural workers have been excluded from many of this country’s most important and hard-fought labor protections, including the right to organize, the right to overtime pay, and in the case of thousands of Colorado farmworkers, the right to minimum wage. The origins of these exclusions, which go back decades, are explicitly racist--originally part of an effort to exclude Black workers from the New Deal’s most important labor protections.
Especially now, after a year in which farmworkers have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic and toiled in wildfires and extreme heat to bring food to our tables, it is essential that we close these anachronistic gaps and provide basic protections and dignity to some of the State’s most vulnerable workers. This Bill, among other things, would:
Provide basic health and safety protections during the pandemic;
Extend the right to organize to farmworkers;
Ensure that service providers like doctors have access to farmworkers on employer provided housing;
Ensure fair pay of at least the minimum wage and overtime based on rules enacted by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment;
Mandate rest breaks and other protections against overwork, especially in extreme heat; and
Provide powerful protections against retaliation for farmworkers who speak out about mistreatment.
The Bill enjoys the wide support among a range of labor unions, advocacy groups, and farmers committed to ensuring basic human dignity in the industry and dismantling structural racism in Colorado. Supporters include, among others : Colorado AFL-CIO, the National Young Farmers Coalition, Project Protect Food Systems Workers, FrontLine Farming, Towards Justice, COLOR (Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights), the Hispanic Affairs Project, the Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition, Colorado Jobs with Justice, Colorado People’s Alliance, and Conservation Colorado.
This bill addresses:
Health and safety during the pandemic,
Right to organize; protection for concerted action; retaliation prohibition
Right to access health workers, promotoras, legal advocates, consular representatives, and other advocates or key service providers
Fair pay and minimum wage
Rest breaks & extreme overwork protections
Immediate prohibition of short handled hoe
Robust enforcement mechanisms
This timely and important bill represents a major step toward dismantling structural racism in Colorado by correcting long-standing, racially motivated exclusions of agricultural workers from state labor and employment laws. Agricultural workers -- who have labored tirelessly through the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, and extreme heat so that we can all have food to eat -- are essential and must be treated as such.
Today, Senator Jessie Danielson introduced the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill into the Colorado Senate. Agricultural workers in Colorado are exempt from many of the basic rights afforded to other workers. They do not have the right to organize for better wages or the health and safety conditions under which they work. They can be retaliated against for something as simple as two workers bringing a safety concern to their boss. Agricultural workers are not entitled to overtime. When they work for 12 hour days in the hot sun harvesting your food their hours are not treated like the hours of workers in much less harsh conditions. Their work lives have very few of the protections that most other workers in the state enjoy this leaves the workers and our entire food system vulnerable.
Agricultural work moves according to the seasons. Farm workers need to work where the food is growing, and so, like other industries where workers must move for a job, they may have to live in employer provided housing. However, agricultural workers are not put up in a hotel room at the Marriott by the airport; rather, they are typically housed in a labor camp with a fence where employers have the ability to prevent the workers from receiving visits from pretty much anyone: health care workers, support services, legal services, etc.
It comes as a surprise to many that legislation to bring farm workers in line with basic workplace
protections is even necessary. The historical exclusion of these workers makes clear why we need the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill. Recall that the early American agricultural workforce was primarily indentured servants and stolen, enslaved Africans. Even after these forms of forced labor were outlawed, exclusions of agricultural workers from fair housing, labor practices, health and safety measures, and the right to organize were maintained to uphold existing racial power and opportunity disparities. At best, these exclusions have slipped under the radar. In some cases, the exclusion of agricultural workers has been affirmatively maintained. For example, as recently as 2020 when Colorado reformed its overtime and minimum pay standards, agricultural workers were once again left out.
At the outset of the COVID pandemic, agricultural workers were deemed essential. But because their work can’t be done via Zoom and because they were tremendously vulnerable long before the pandemic, a paradox has emerged: those who labor to put food on our tables are simultaneously designated essential and treated as expendable. All Coloradans should be concerned that most important workers for everyone’s food security are vulnerable and have been prevented from receiving even the most basic rights and from organizing for the protections they need.
Data collection for agricultural workers in Colorado is complicated by the invisibility of farmworkers and the intimidation and fear of the government and the experience as people
with tenuous relationships with documentation transnational lives, another reason this bill is so crucial. According to research gathered prior to and during the COVID pandemic:
At least 65% of people who labor in Colorado’s food system are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (with at least 82% of this group identifying as Latinx).
White men are underrepresented in food and agriculture essential workers and still earn 30% above average wages in the sector.
These workers earn an average income of less than $30,000 per year in a state with an above average cost of living.
Latinx women working in food and agriculture who are not citizens receive significantly lower wages than citizens relative to both White men (just 50% of average wages for noncitizens compared to 64% for citizens) and White women (72% of average wages for noncitizens compared to 91% for citizens). In comparison to White men, Latinx men working in food and agriculture who are not citizens earn 71% of average wages in food and agriculture compared to 84% for citizens.
Between March 31, 2020, and December 2, 2020, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) reported at least 29 outbreaks impacting 245 agricultural workers who tested positive, had suspected cases, or had died from COVID-19. Due to barriers accessessing tests in the early months of the pandemic, which contributed to under-reporting, these numbers are assumed to be significant underestimates of both the prevalence and impacts of COVID-19 (other previous outbreaks among agricultural workers have similarly gone under-reported).
Based on Project Protect Promotora Network research and data, 1 in 3 farmworkers who are quarentining or have COVID symptoms had not received medical attention at the time of our outreach. Promotores learned that community members were not seeking COVID-19 tests “because they are afraid since they don't know how it works regarding their legal status or work implications.”
42% of families to whom we provided outreach in 2020 needed help with both housing assistance and food assistance.
Senate bill 87, ‘Agricultural Workers’ Rights is an exciting, timely addition to the hundreds bills introduced Tuesday February 16, 2021 on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.. Sponsored in the Senate by Senator Jessie Danielson and in the House by Representatives Karen McCormick and Yadira Carveo, this bill has wide support across the Colorado Democatic Caucus.
“For too long agricultural workers have been systematically exploited by being left out of basic workplace protections. I am proud to bring this bill to ensure that all workers in Colorado, no matter the industry, are guaranteed the same protections.”Said Senator Jessie Danielson D- Jefferson County
“Due to the systematic exploitation of immigrants and people of color in the industry, agricultural workers face grueling conditions and long hours without basic workplace protections. Colorado must step in to ensure that all workers can exercise their rights to fair wages and safe working conditions, and SB21-087 will finally bring these long-fought protections to Colorado's agricultural workers.” Said Representative Yadira Caraveo D- Adams County.
“For years communities in Colorado and across the country have demanded equitable treatment of agricultural workers. In 2021 Colorado can finally get that done. Agricultural workers are essential workers and need to be treated as such. I’m proud to champion this bill”- said Representative Karen McCormick D- Boulder.
This bill already has wide support across the state of Colorado from an impressive number of organizations including the Colorado AFL-CIO, the Colorado Young Farmers Alliance, Project Protect Food Systems Workers, FrontLine Farming, Towards Justice, COLOR (Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights), the Hispanic Affairs Project, the Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition, Colorado Jobs with Justice, Colorado People’s Alliance, and Conservation Colorado. This broad based coalition of organizations all see Senate Bill 21-087, ‘Agricultural Workers’ Rights’ as not only good policy, but essential for all Coloradoans food systems safety and the lives of the workers.
When this bill passes agricultural workers will be brought in from the economic and social margins. They will be put on par with other workers in the state. This simple explanation is what has so many Colorado activists already excited about the possibilities, “Protecting essential workers and attacking systemic racism must be more than just talk. The exclusion of farmworkers, among the most essential but also vulnerable workers in our state, from many of the basic protections provided to the vast majority of workers is a stain in our laws. It must be eliminated,” said David Seligman, Executive Director of Towards Justice.
While detractors say that we cannot possibly make these changes because farmers will be negatively impacted financially, research shows that because labor costs are such a low percentage of food costs that the real financial impact of this bill would be negligible. As National Geographic reported, “Remember that farm workers' share of each U.S. household’s annual grocery bill is $45. If farm worker wages go up by 47 percent, grocery bills would go up just $21.15 a year, or $1.76 a month” per household. The only real reason to continue to deprive agricultural workers of their rights is the continued systemic racism that haunts an industry built on our history of slavery, oppression, and racial injustice.
For all of those who committed in the summer of 2020 to dismantle systemic racism and are wondering how to make that happen, 21-087, ‘Agricultural Workers’ Rights’ is a remedy where we can draw a direct line between racism and the current system and a solution where workers in the agricultural system in Colorado can benefit directly and measurably.
The exclusion of agricultural workers from basic rights and protections afforded to other workers is an artifact of New Deal legislative compromises with racist Southern Democrats to exclude agricultural workers and domestic workers, who were predominantly Black at the time. The pernicious race-based motivations of this exclusion are a paradigmatic example of historical racism embedded and carried forward in the law to this day. To correct long standing power imbalances between agricultural workers and their employers, Colorado must protect agricultural workers’ right to organize, collectively bargain, and join, form, or assist labor organizations.
For a complete Media Kit with photos and quotes from farm workers and other impacted groups:
 Tracie McMillan, “Can We Afford to Pay U.S. Farmworkers More,” National Geographic, March 31, 2016, available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/03/31/can-we-afford-to-pay-u-s-farmworkers-more/