Agricultural workers’ rights bill passes major test with Senate vote despite industry opposition

Advocates say whistleblower protections could help prevent injuries and fatalities on farms and ranches

By: - May 21, 2021 5:00 am

Renee M. Chacon, in foreground, of Grupo Huitzilopochtli performs as part of a ceremony and press conference for Senate Bill 21-87, which would provide agriculture workers a bill of rights, on May 20, 2021, at the Colorado Capitol. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

For farmworker advocates, a dairy employee’s death in Weld County looms large in the ongoing debate over controversial legislation that aims to extend labor protections to Colorado agriculture.

Juan Panzo Temoxtle had been working at Shelton Dairy in LaSalle for less than six weeks when on March 30 he spent his first day behind the wheel of a manure vacuum truck.

The 44-year-old Mexican immigrant was learning how to operate the vehicle while his coworker directed him from just outside of the cab, according to farmworker advocates with the organization Project Protect Food Systems.

Panzo Temoxtle’s wife and three young children live in Mexico. His wife, Serafina Caliuhua Gonzalez, told Project Protect he had come to the U.S. to pave the way for his kids “to have a career and have a better future.”

But Panzo Temoxtle would meet an untimely and gruesome death in an accident at the dairy operation outside Greeley.

Around 9 a.m., March 30, the manure vacuum truck “lurched forward and fell into the manure pit, submerging the cab of the truck in the fetid liquid manure with Panzo trapped inside,” according to witness accounts told to Project Protect.

A Weld County Sheriff’s Office deputy who reported to the scene moments later saw no gate or fence around the pit, the deputy stated in an incident report. Two employees of the dairy had tried to save Panzo Temoxtle but were not able to open the doors of the cab. Others hooked up chains to the truck and used two excavators to partially remove the truck from the manure pit. They pulled Panzo Temoxtle out of the truck and began CPR, according to the deputy’s report from witness statements.

Panzo Temoxtle was airlifted from the scene and later died at the hospital.

Investigation ongoing

“We cannot adequately express the deep sadness we feel over the accident that involved one of our employees,” the management team at Shelton Dairy told Newsline in an emailed statement. “Our sympathy is with their family as we all mourn this loss.”

The dairy’s management team added that it was cooperating with the Weld County Sheriff’s Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the latter of which is conducting an ongoing investigation.

“We work day-in and day-out alongside our employees and we can share that this has been traumatic for all of us; the whole team feels it,” the statement continued. “We are heart-broken for the family and extend our deepest support and care at this time.”

For decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned of the dangers of manure pits, which release toxic gases — methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and ammonia — that can prove fatal, and have killed many farmworkers in the U.S.

OSHA had not received any other documented complaints about Shelton Dairy in the 10 years prior to the incident. But advocates pushing for a state bill concerning agricultural workers’ rights said the bill could potentially have prevented the accident. A major part of that legislation, Senate Bill 21-87, provides protection from retaliation for workers who report safety concerns, a protection that’s already extended to workers in other industries under state and federal law.

State Sen. Jessie Danielson speaks during a press conference in support of Senate Bill 21-87, which would provide agriculture workers a bill of rights, on May 20, 2021, at the Colorado Capitol. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

It’s still unclear whether lack of proper workplace safety measures at the dairy led to Panzo Temoxtle’s death.

OSHA, the federal agency conducting the investigation, doesn’t investigate safety concerns at workplaces unless someone makes a report, or an accident occurs, Michelle Auerbach, communications director for Project Protect Food Systems, pointed out in an interview.

“The law in Colorado is set up in such a way that … it’s not safe for workers to speak out, it’s not really safe for the family to speak out, and so it’s just, it’s a sad and unfortunate situation because of that,” Auerbach said.

Opponents of SB-87 say agricultural employers have their workers’ best interests at heart.

“The agriculture community is deeply committed to providing safe on-farm workplaces for their families and employees,” Sterling Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg told Newsline in an April statement, when asked to comment on farmworker advocates’ statements about Panzo Temoxtle’s death and on advocates’ assertion that SB-87’s whistleblower protections might have saved him.

“It is unfortunate and inappropriate that some are trying to politicize this horrible accident to push their legislative agenda, especially when provisions in this legislation would not have prevented this,” wrote Sonnenberg, whose district includes Shelton Dairy.

Business groups, labor organizations battle over bill

Major industry players including the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Livestock Association, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union oppose SB-87.

Meanwhile, some of the bill’s principal advocates include the Project Protect Promotora Network, a statewide coalition of groups that provided public health resources to agricultural workers during the pandemic; labor advocacy organization 9to5 Colorado; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME; and the Colorado AFL-CIO.

Tensions over the sweeping legislation bubbled over during Senate floor debate Wednesday, when many Republican lawmakers spoke in fierce opposition to SB-87. They said provisions such as collective bargaining rights, minimum wages and overtime pay don’t take the industry’s unique needs into account, and would force farmers and ranchers out of business.

The bill’s sponsors, Democratic Sens. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge and Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, countered that such protections are long overdue for the state’s agricultural workers.

“I can say that most people in the ag industry are wonderful, hardworking, dedicated people, just like my dad,” said Danielson, who grew up on her father’s family farm in Weld County. “(But) just like in any industry, there are employers who exploit their workers.”

The sponsors on Wednesday brought several amendments that sought to address certain concerns from farmers, ranchers and growers. They said they’d given thoughtful consideration to opponents’ concerns.

“Never in my career have I experienced something like an over-three-hour stakeholder meeting that lasted longer than the entirety of testimony on a gun bill,” Moreno said on the Senate floor, referring to discussions with agricultural industry representatives.

One change to the bill added exemptions for when workers can use the short-handled hoe, a tool that SB-87 would ban in most instances.

short-handled hoe
The short-handled hoe, a tool that is banned in some other states, is sometimes called “el brazo del diablo,” or the devil’s arm. (Courtesy of Project Protect Food Systems)

The tool forces people working in fields to bend over, leading to back problems. Other states including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California have already banned the short-handled hoe. However, Colorado agricultural employers argue it’s needed in certain circumstances. The Senate amendment brought by the sponsors would allow the short-handled hoe for hand-weeding or thinning on certified organic farms.

In response to pushback from industry groups regarding SB-87’s provision on mandatory meal breaks, Danielson asked lawmakers to support an amendment tweaking that section of the bill. “If the nature of the business activities or other circumstances makes the uninterrupted meal period impractical, the agricultural employee must be permitted to consume an on-duty meal while performing duties,” the added language reads.

Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, took issue with a provision of the bill that would require agricultural employers to provide transportation for their workers to the nearest town, once every three weeks. Coram said that presented a problem for herders who travel to Colorado’s high country each June.

“No motorized vehicles are allowed in (wilderness) areas, much of my region,” Coram said. “My district is 70% federal, state or tribal land.”

Danielson countered that however the cattle ranchers had transported their employees to their place of work, they should also have to bring them back into town every few weeks for supplies, health care and other resources.

SB-87 passed in the Senate on a vote of 19-15, with Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, excused. All Democrats present supported SB-87, and all Republicans were opposed. Next, the bill goes to the House for consideration.

Newsline prior to Wednesday had asked Garcia’s office and Senate Democrats whether Garcia planned to support the legislation, but a response had not been provided by the time of this article’s publication.

“For generations, our agricultural workers have been exploited for profit in Colorado, and it’s well beyond time for us to stand up for them,” Danielson said in a statement following SB-87’s Senate passage. “Our ag workers should have the same protections as other workers. This bill ensures that.”

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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