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Colorado produce growers say new rules could destroy labor force as state debates overtime pay

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Posted at 6:37 PM, Sep 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-21 20:37:48-04

LASALLE, Colo. — In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains on the plains of Colorado, the bounty of the season stretches as far as the eye can see.

“Weld County was either the largest or one of the largest potato growing areas in the nation in the early 1900s,” said Amber Strohauer, whose family has been growing potatoes and other produce in Colorado for four generations.

Migrant workers have been coming here for decades for the seasonal jobs the farming industry provides.

“I came from Ukraine,” Mytro Goncharuk said. “I’ve been working here for Strohauer Farms for five years.”

Goncharuk works well over 40 hours a week this time of year and banks that extra income to take back home after harvest.

“I’m local farm truck driver and I also manage truck drivers,” Goncharuk said. “Personally, my motivation is for the experience, which I can apply in Ukraine later, and, of course, money.”

Just up the road at Hungenberg Produce, workers like Perla Barrera are putting in long hours, too.

“I like it,” Barrera said. “I think this is my second home. I have 15 years working here.”

“They need the opportunity to make their money in these few months and go back and do whatever they have to do,” said Eliseo Mendez Jr., who has worked at Hungenberg Produce for 30 years. “If you work for 40 hours, it’s just not, it’s not worth it.”

The Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association says Senate Bill 87 threatens that income for migrant workers. The CFVGA says the bill would force growers to pay overtime for more than 40 hours a week, something agriculture has traditionally been exempt from paying.

“It’s already a big expense,” Strohauer said. “Labor costs are 35-40% of our outputs. If you tell people in other industries that, their jaws hit the floor.

Strohauer says new rules could put some family farms out of business. It could also result in experienced workers going elsewhere.

She says if the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment doesn’t relax those rules, she’ll have no other choice but to cut worker hours back to 40 per week.

“They leave their families, they leave their country for months at a time,” Strohauer said. “For them, it’s not worth it to come here and be limited on their hours. They want to work as much as possible.”

Mendez agrees.

“They come up here to try to support their families in a short amount of time,” Mendez said. “There’s just so much more they can make here compared to where they’re from.”

He’s been working at Hungenberg Produce for three decades.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else or working anywhere else,” Mendez said. “These guys are great. They take care of their people.”

Goncharuk says having his hours cut would be a deal breaker for him.

“I can switch my attention to a different state or a different country,” Goncharuk said. “It’s not about hanging around. It’s more about staying busy. It makes me feel happy.”

Goncharuk is an H-2A worker, a program that allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

Strohauer says paying agricultural workers overtime simply isn’t feasible when they’re already making well over minimum wage and getting paid up to 70-80 hours a week as it is during harvest.

“We’re not the price setters, we’re the price takers in our industry,” Strhauer said. “We can’t tell the retailers we want more money for our product because we now have to pay our workers overtime. It doesn’t work that way in ag. Retail has the ability to go out and locate produce from other states and other countries. They dictate what we get paid, and it really does come down to price point. If we can’t remain competitive, we can’t stay in business.”

However, Bruce Goldstein, the president of the nonprofit Farmworker Justice, disagrees.

"There's no evidence that extending labor rights to farm workers bankrupts farms. Before there was overtime pay for other workers, there were all sorts of claims that businesses wouldn't be able to operate and workers wouldn't even like it," Goldstein said. "That's been proven wrong."

Denver7 reached out to all four of the bill sponsors for comment on Tuesday. Only one responded.

State Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat from Thornton, provided the following statement:

“SB87 was the result of months of intense stakeholding work and compromises from every party involved. The law, many portions of which have been in effect since Gov. Polis signed it on June 25, provides long overdue protections to farm workers and gives them the dignity that they deserve as the backbone of our food production system. The rulemaking process at CDLE regarding certain labor conditions, compensation and overtime, must keep in mind the exploitation these essential workers face and ensure that they are properly compensated and enjoy the protections we provide workers in other industries. I know it is possible to protect the rights of agricultural workers without hurting our farmers, and it is my hope that the final rules will properly reflect this properly.”

Agricultural workers and the people they work for have been fighting over what constitutes fair compensation for centuries. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law in the 1930s.

It's why the U.S. no longer has child labor. It's also why we have a minimum wage and overtime. Farm workers were excluded from both. According to Don Mayer, a professor at the University of Denver in the Department of Business Ethics and Legal Studies, the reason for excluding farm workers was to gain support from southern Democrats.

"Basically, National Labor Relations act of 1935 and Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938 would not have passed without the support of southern Democrats. Underline the word southern there and you realize what the agricultural folks down south wanted was the continuation of a low wage labor pool, and that dates back to slavery, unfortunately," Mayer said.

People like Cesar Chavez took exception to the exception. Through strikes and picketing, he and his colleagues secured higher wages for farm workers.

In 2016, California became the first state in the country to grant agricultural employees time and a half. A handful of other states have since followed suit.