Legal Rights of Farm Workers

Photo by Hannah Wallis

Farm workers in Colorado face multiple issues relating to their pay and working conditions. Here is some brief information on their rights:

Wages

Farm workers in Colorado must receive the higher of the hourly federal or state minimum wage. Unfortunately, farm workers often do not receive the minimum wage, especially when they are working a piece rate (i.e., being paid by the bucket or bag). Regardless of the method of payment, a farm worker must receive the minimum hourly wage for each hour worked. Other common wage problems include failure to receive pay stubs, unlawful deductions, and failure to receive pay for all hours worked. The following laws regulate the payment of wages to Colorado farm workers: the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Colorado Wage Statute and the Colorado Minimum Wage. Please note that the minimum wage changes each year on January 1st. For more information on unpaid wages, please see our sample wage-demand letter in English or in Spanish and the complaint process with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

Working and Living Conditions

Federal law, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA), requires agricultural employers and farm labor contractors to observe certain labor standards when employing migrant and seasonal agricultural workers. Such standards, include, but are not limited to, recruitment, wages, transportation and housing.

Farm Labor Contractors Many farm workers are employed by a farm labor contractor who acts as the "middleman" between the workers and the agricultural employer. Current law requires that such farm labor contractors must be licensed both by the federal government (page 3) and Colorado. Further, agricultural employers that use farm labor contractors are required to use someone who is properly licensed.

Transportation Farm workers may ride in unsafe vehicles when being transported to the workplace because of problems such as overcrowding or lack of seatbelts. Any agricultural employer or farm labor contractor who is transporting farm workers must insure that they are complying with federal safety standards.

Housing Temporary farm worker housing can be overcrowded, unsanitary and dilapidated. Anyone who owns or controls such housing for farm workers must ensure that it meets health and safety standards at both the state and federal level.

Field Sanitation For most employers, federal law states that farm workers must have potable drinking water, bathrooms and hand washing facilities in the fields.

Workers Compensation

Agriculture is still one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States. In Colorado, all agricultural employers must have workers' compensation insurance.

If a farm worker is injured on the job, s/he should give written notice to the employer. Depending on the severity of the injury and the number of days of missed work, a farm worker could be entitled to medical treatment, a percentage of lost wages and compensation for a permanent injury. If an employer fails to file a workers' compensation claim, a claim can be directly filed with the Colorado Division of Workers' Compensation.

H2-A Workers

The H-2A program authorizes agricultural employers to bring in foreign workers on temporary visas if the employer can show that there are insufficient U.S. workers available to do work. These employers are required to comply with federal regulations relating to recruitment, wages, housing and payment of work-related expenses.

Pesticides

A study conducted by CPAP in 2001 found that 59 percent of farm workers had never received pesticide safety training and that 49 percent of farm workers had experienced symptoms of pesticide exposure like skin irritation, headaches or inflamed eyes after working in the fields.

Farmworkers in northeast Colorado work as a plane sprays pesticides on an adjoining field. Pesticide drift is a big threat to safety for farm workers.

The Worker Protection Standards (WPS) regulate the use of pesticides on farms, in greenhouses and in nurseries. WPS, for example, requires safety trainings for workers, decontamination sites, reentry intervals after pesticide use and special training and protective gear for those handling and applying pesticides. A farm worker can report any violations of the WPS to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Further, a third party, such as a nongovernmental organization, can report a pesticides complaint on behalf of a worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, by filing an Agricultural Worker Information Referral Form. Violations of pesticide safety regulations should be reported as soon as possible.