Aerial views of drought affected Colorado farm lands, near Wiggins, Colorado on Saturday, July 21, 2012. Green areas are irrigated, the yellow areas are dryland wheat crops. USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

Farmworkers often struggle to access healthcare. While working, they live in remote areas, sometimes with no personal vehicle. In Colorado, nothing in the law enshrined farmworkers’ rights to quality healthcare.

Until 2021.

That year, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill into law in June. This law guarantees farmworkers have the right to contact “essential service providers” — health professionals, attorneys, consuls, and clergy members — during their breaks.

However, an industry group is challenging the law. The Colorado Livestock Association filed a lawsuit in June that focuses on the section of the law requiring employers to not impede farmworkers’ reasonable access to service providers during their off time. The group wants it ruled unconstitutional. 

In the lawsuit, the Colorado Livestock Association requested the court declare the provision allowing key service providers access to its property violates employers’ rights to exclude people from their property.

“The State of Colorado has not paid just compensation for this (violation) nor initiated eminent domain proceedings to do so,” the organization said in court documents. This is the second time an organization tied to the state’s agricultural industry has challenged the law.

The Colorado Livestock Association did not immediately return a request for comment.

In response, a farmworker – identified as Jane Doe in court documents – and Colorado Legal Services, a nonprofit providing legal advice to low-income people in the state, filed a motion to intervene as defendants on Sept. 13.

Colorado Legal Services is receiving support and advice from a newly formed entity known as FarmSTAND, a nonprofit organization comprised of a national network of attorneys to represent communities affected by industrial agriculture. Towards Justice and Farmworker Justice are also involved in the lawsuit.

According to the organization’s press release, FarmSTAND seeks to concentrate resources — bringing lawyers and their expertise together — on certain cases that can set precedents, working in partnership with a broad base of local and national organizations. 

“We try to support partners who are doing great work in this space to try to reform industrial animal agriculture and transform the food system,” said Kelsey Eberly, the FarmSTAND attorney counseling on the case.

A community with specific characteristics

An estimated 2.4 million people work on farms and ranches nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture. This population, mostly Latino, is roughly equal to the population of Chicago. About half are undocumented.

In Colorado alone, the agricultural industry employed 19,339 workers, experiencing a 5.7% growth in direct crop production jobs in 2022, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The farmworker community in Colorado constitutes 4.1% of the rural workforce.

Eberly emphasized the unique challenges faced by farmworkers. 

“These workers are some of the most isolated and vulnerable,” she said.

Their remote residences and long and demanding work hours create significant barriers when seeking access to essential services, such as health professionals, that many other workers often take for granted.

Eberly also highlighted the importance of the existing law for farmworkers’ rights in Colorado for seasonal laborers who arrive to work on farms during the summer months and often find themselves entirely reliant on their employers for various aspects of their livelihood.

“They live at the place where they work, and they don’t have transportation necessarily, so the only way for them to get any help is for people to come to them,” she said. “That’s why this law is so important.”

Access to assistance becomes especially critical when workers have health issues, particularly given the challenges posed by the effects of climate change. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat exposure than workers in other sectors. One of the reasons is that this demographic group has a higher incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic kidney disease. 

There is little legislation to protect agricultural workers in the U.S. 

“This Colorado Law was so groundbreaking, and why it’s so important to protect it,” Eberly said, “so that it can be used as a model for other states.”

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Mónica Cordero is a Report for America corps member and part of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk team. Her expertise includes data analysis with Python and SQL, and reporting under the...