Ag labor rights bill brings ‘sweeping changes’ to Colorado
As Colorado farmers and ag producers continue to grapple with increasing production and input costs, they are also impacted by the passage of last year’s Senate Bill 21-087 on agricultural labor rights and responsibilities. The bill was signed into law June 25, 2021, by Governor Jared Polis and went into effect immediately, although provisions are being implemented at varied dates.
And according to Marilyn Bay Drake, executive director of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, the law, now being called the Agriculture Labor Bill of Rights, is “biggest challenge facing Colorado produce growers, and all Colorado agricultural employers.”
Drake works closely with the board of directors to “improve the business sustainability and profitability of all sizes and types of Colorado commercial fruit and vegetable growers,” with the five core areas of focus being food safety, labor, water, nutrition/health and business development.
In mid-August she addressed the labor situation and the Ag Labor Bill of Rights, saying, “This bill brought sweeping changes to Colorado, including overtime pay, additional breaks and other requirements when temperatures reach 80 degrees, prohibitions against hand weeding more than 20 percent of an employee’s time and nearly unfettered access to any and all service providers.”
Drake continued “All provisions of this law have been implemented except for the overtime, which begins phase-in Nov. 1. Thanks to a unified ag coalition, growers will be able to apply for variances to the hand weeding restrictions and overtime pay.” She noted that overtime pay, which advocates had wanted to “kick in at 40 hours, will not apply until 48 hours, or during a farmer’s designated ‘peak season’ until after the employee has worked 52 hours.”
Both sides of the issue have filed lawsuits, with bill proponents “suing the state, because overtime does not kick in until after 40 hours.” And the ag coalition, Drake said, “has filed a lawsuit against the state on the service provider access provisions on the basis that much more lenient provisions were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in California a year ago.”
Drake said the net result is that “this new law and attention from ag labor activists have made farming very stressful in Colorado. The law comes on top of climate change/irrigation availability concerns and late freezes for Western Slope orchards in previous years.” And, she added, “Like all of agriculture, Colorado produce growers are experiencing substantial hikes in input costs, especially fertilizers, crop protection products and packaging.”
The association’s website, coloradoproduce.org, shows that the state’s fruit and vegetable production “is almost a $300 million industry at the farm gate in Colorado, with over 85,000 acres in production.”
The state’s produce calendar shows 36 produce crops, although Drake said, “I think that is conservative, as arugula, mustard, radishes, turnips are all counted as one. Cantaloupe are listed, but no honeydew melons and other similar crops.”
While 2022’s seasonal crops are “for the most part, doing well in Colorado this year,” Drake said, some growers “have concerns whether their irrigation water will take them through the season.”
Last year the state’s Western Slope experienced lower production as a result of the previous year’s damaging freeze. “They lost some trees and vines, and those that survived suffered production,” Drake explained. Also in 2021, “On the east side, there were pockets of hail damage, but better than some years. I know that both securing and paying for transportation were a problem in 2021 and again this year.”
Along with contending with the issues of labor, food safety et al, the association also promotes its members and products through a variety of activities and events. Drake said, “We hosted a highly successful Farm-to-Table Influencer Tour July 9, with funding from the Specialty Crop Block Grant. We had big spikes in social media engagement as a result of this tour and our great contract social media reporters that do such a nice job of featuring farms and encouraging Colorado produce consumption among the public.”
She said the association has applied for another round of SCBG funding for 2023-24 “and been given the initial nod to contract with a nutritionist/chef to talk to buyers and potential buyers about the importance of gut health/gut immunity and how local produce can provide that.”
Also, she noted, “Our annual conference is Feb. 21-22, 2023, at a new local, the Westin Hotel in Westminster. The format will be a start time of noon on the first day, going into early evening. Then on day two, we will finish early afternoon. We hope this will give growers, other members and exhibitors one less overnight in a hotel. Conference is always a great time for networking, educational sessions, our trade show and time to conduct association business.”