Should agricultural workers be eligible for overtime pay?
In short — yes, and immediately.
In other industries, overtime pay is a norm. Typically, workers are eligible for time-and-a-half of their hourly pay after 40 hours of work per week. In an era of competing and nested crises — record levels of inflation being one of several — many workers depend on overtime pay to cover their bills. Now, consider for a moment working well over 40 hours in a week, while making only $7.25 an hour (the federal minimum wage). This is the current reality many farm workers face across Colorado.
With the passing of SB21-087, farm workers will at least be paid Colorado’s minimum wage of $12.56-an-hour starting in January. However, the threshold for time-and-a-half will remain 20 hours more than what workers in other industries must work in an average work week. Then, in another three years (at best), farm workers will reach the same threshold for time-and-a-half overtime pay after working 8 more hours (an entire workday) per week. Further, it is important to consider that the same rights will not be extended to farm workers employed by highly seasonable employers during peak season.
Considering the inequalities already faced by farm workers, the question of addressing equal pay is thankfully no longer a question of "if" (at least not for those employed by non-highly seasonable employers), but it still remains a question of "when." More importantly, it is a question of "why."
Everyone has seen the signs — "now hiring"; "be patient to the ones who showed up." We are living through a time of profound shifts in labor relations in the U.S. On the one hand, employers have been surprised by the labor shortage. However, on the other hand, workers — especially low-wage workers — are realizing their worth, resulting in last month’s "Striketober." The issue isn’t whether there are jobs. The issue is more a matter of dignity, demanding fair pay, and coming to terms with the larger social shifts brought about by an ongoing global pandemic.
Farm workers are no different. Yet, history would suggest they are. The reason farm workers are not afforded to the same rights as other workers is due to histories of dispossession and racialized wage gaps. Since the creation of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, farm workers have been exempted from overtime pay under Colorado and federal law. The law was written to appease Southern Democrats, and it was explicitly designed to ensure low wages and unequal rights for Black field workers.
Today, it is possible to see a similar logic of underpaying minority communities at play. For example, many opponents of the bill argue that temporary migrant workers — who make up 10% to 15% of farm workers in Colorado — “aim to work as many hours as possible before returning to their home country.” Why not pay them for the many hours they are working? Why not start now?
Again, we are living through an era of intersecting crises. Recently, Colorado passed HB21-1266, which addresses histories of environmental injustice in the state. Agricultural work’s past is deeply intertwined with environmental injustice. Farm workers are exposed to toxic chemicals, leading to health issues. Further downstream, toxic agricultural runoff disproportionately impacts minority communities. With the recent publication of Colorado’s Just Transition Action Plan — which emphasizes the need to address histories of inequality across the state while also paving a path for a more just and equitable future — the state has an opportunity to center justice in its ongoing work. And paying farm workers — those who make sure we eat everyday — now (not 2025) is a chance to repair histories of injustice while ensuring job safety for years to come.
Dylan M. Harris is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and has been involved in organizing and activism for over a decade, working on issues including fair labor and food.