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Why Colorado Must Protect its Agricultural Workers

Historically, agricultural workers have been left out of the most basic of workplace protections such as meal and rest breaks, overtime pay, the right to collective action, and even guaranteed minimum wage pay. Their exclusion is directly linked to institutional racism and economic inequities that trace back hundreds of years to the predominantly enslaved labor force in colonial and early America and were codified in the 1930s as a way to get Southern legislators to support New Deal-era labor and employment protections. The agricultural workforce is dominated by immigrants and other populations facing inequities who must work under grueling conditions, for long hours, exposed to the elements. At least 65% - 73% 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). The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that farmworkers are essential, but treated as expendable. It is vital that the state step in to ensure agricultural workers have the same basic protections as other workers in Colorado.

  • Only 23% of the 38,893 farms and ranch operations in Colorado hire or contract for outside labor. This means that 77% of Colorado farms will not experience impacts when SB21-087 is enacted.

  • Many agricultural workers live below the poverty line, and still more fall at or below 200% of the Federal poverty level due to the pay rates and exemptions.

  • While white men are numerically underrepresented in food and agriculture essential workforces (i.e., fewer white men work in this sector than people of other identities), they still earn 30% above average wages in the sector. Intervention is needed to correct systemic inequity that maintains lower economic brackets for people of color laboring in agriculture.

  • The health of agricultural workers is heavily impacted by working conditions. When employers do not provide the correct tools or ability to take care of basic needs, they are causing the chronic health conditions their staff suffers from.

[Q: If you had the opportunity to speak with legislators, what would you say?]

[English Translation] “I would tell them that the work in agriculture should be better paid, that they should value our basic rights as human beings. That they stop exploiting us with such long work days and if we do have to work such long days, that we have the right to overtime. I’m not afraid of work, because that’s what I came to do, I just want it to be fair.”

- Mexican woman agricultural worker in Northeast Colorado in Morgan County, Interviewed by Project Protect Promotora

According to the USDA, there are 36,733 hired farm workers in Colorado, which does not include contract labor, incarcerated workers, or undocumented workers. Most data sources on the numbers of workers likely do not fully capture temporary, seasonal, and contract labor brought into Colorado by farm labor contractors nor do they reflect accurate numbers of undocumented workers, nor prisoners who work in agriculture during their incarceration. As such, numbers presented are often the bare minimum counts. Contract workers, based on labor contract expenses reported in the USDA 2017 census, account for approximately 4,799 workers in Colorado, bringing this number up to 41,532, including about 3,000 workers with H-2A visas. This number represents a baseline, but may not be all encompassing (ex. Incarcerated or undocumented workers).

FAQs- Why Colorado Must Protect its Ag Workers
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