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Heat wave sheds light on conditions that Colorado's farmworkers are up against

The U.S. Department of Labor launched a heat awareness campaign this week seeking to protect farmworkers as the heat intensifies in parts of the country.

SHERIDAN, Colorado — Colorado is heading into another weekend with a dangerous weather combo: the potential for flash flooding in areas scorched two summers ago, and more of this heat we just can't shake.

The heat itself can be dangerous for people who have no choice but to work outside this summer.

This week, the U.S. Department of Labor launched a heat awareness campaign to highlight the protections for farmworkers. 

In Colorado, Senate Bill 21-087, or "Agricultural Workers' Rights," took effect this year, which is meant to protect farmworkers who take on long days in the heat. 

"And we're really just trying to get the word out there about what the new protections are and making sure that workers know what their rights are and are aware of the protections and employers as well," said Jenifer Rodriguez, the managing attorney for the Farmworkers Division of Colorado Legal Services.

Credit: Courtesy of Forte Fruits Inc
Workers at Forte Fruits Inc pack fruit at their farm in Palisade.

Adapting to increasing heat

When summer hits, expect to see Forte Fruits in Sheridan filled with customers taking advantage of the seasonal sale of their famous peaches from Palisade.

“It really is year round because you have to do so much in between," said Joe Stoll, an employee at the store. 

The farm where they get a majority of their supply has been in Palisade since 1972, and depending on the time of year, they could have anywhere from 10 to 50 workers at a time, he said. 

“Fortunately for us, they’re veterans over there," Stoll said. "They know what to do when you have the same people."

That's a good thing, he says, because it means the workers at the farm understand the heat. 

Stoll explained that as each summer gets hotter, their workers start and finish their days earlier. 

"As early as even 4 o' clock in the morning but they have to finish by noon…it's just too hot and it's not safe," he said.

He believes heightened awareness around the increasing temperatures each summer is important. 

“Because if somebody doesn’t know, they don’t know. And if you don’t have veteran workers, or if you have an employer that’s not up to speed then it could be very dangerous," he said. 

Credit: Alex Castillo
A customer picks out fruits and vegetables at Forte Fruits Inc in Sheridan.

Looking out for workers

As for Rodriguez with Colorado Legal Services, she's been traveling the state talking with farm workers in each region where there's high populations of farm workers. 

This includes talking to service providers, visiting with farm workers to figure out whether or not employers are complying with new state laws, and more. 

"Some employers have done a great job in providing shade and providing extra water. Some have told me that their employers have ice," she said. "Unfortunately, there are others who have said it doesn't seem like their employer is complying still with what the requirements were prior to this new protection. As far as water, the shade that's provided, it's unclear whether or not it's in compliance."

She estimates that she's gone to around 10 farms over the last two weeks. 

She says her team has talked to some workers who have called them with concerns, but were afraid to make formal complaints for fear of retaliation. She says instead, those workers made anonymous complaints to the Department of Labor. 

Overall, she believes the focus is on shade, water and breaks - as well as making sure workers are aware of their new protections. 

"Because it's not about getting employers in trouble. It's about getting the shade and the water to the workers to prevent any illnesses or deaths," she said. 

Other agencies like OSHA, still don't have a nationwide standard around heat safety for farmworkers. 

While still in the early stages, crafting those rules could take years.

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