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Farmworker advocates file lawsuit against Polis, state labor department

The complaint was filed against Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

DENVER — Thursday is César Chávez Day, a federally-recognized holiday that celebrates the legacy of the civil rights and labor movement activist.

"One of my favorite quotes from him is that it's never about the grapes or lettuce, it's about the people," said Pamela Reséndiz Trujano, executive director of Colorado Jobs with Justice.

Reséndiz Trujano said they're continuing Chávez's fight for agricultural workers' rights by announcing a lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

“The fact we have lived and are continuing to experience a pandemic where we call these workers essential workers, where we call them heroes, and yet we don’t pay them with that reflection of those names," they said. "They deserve equal pay for equal work, which they're not getting right now and potentially won't get until 2025."

Senate Bill 21-087, or "Agricultural Workers' Rights," took effect this year. It's meant to protect farmworkers who take on long hours in brutal heat.

Reséndiz Trujano said the law improved access to shade and water and to healthcare and housing services. It also allowed farmworkers to organize and get minimum wage and banned the use of the short-handled hoe, which is also known as the "devil's arm."

But Reséndiz Trujano said it's still not enough, especially for farmworkers who make around $26,000 annually.

"The one thing that is still outstanding is overtime," they said. “We feel as Colorado Jobs with Justice that if workers aren’t able to acquire overtime pay like all other workers, which is after 40 hours, that the actual legislation is not being fulfilled to its fullest and workers are continuing to be exploited, particularly because of who most likely farmworkers are, which is either people of color or immigrants.”

Reséndiz Trujano said farmworkers won't get overtime pay until the 2023 growing season. The overtime will take effect after 60 hours of work. Depending on the size of the farm, they could be eligible for overtime after 48 to 52 hours.

"It makes it seem as though their labor or their time is not as valuable as the labor and time of other workers in other industries, even seasonal industries," they said.

9NEWS reached out to Polis' office and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment regarding the lawsuit. Both said they do not comment on pending litigation.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment also said "published guidance on overtime and other labor rights and responsibilities, in agriculture and beyond, are at cdle.colorado.gov/infos — see INFO #1 & #12-12D."

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