Until recently, many Colorado agricultural workers toiling on remote rural farms and ranches couldn’t count on being able to talk with community healthcare workers or other visitors at their home – if it was on their employer’s land. 

That was the reality before 2021, when a new state law established their right to transportation and the freedom to meet with service providers such as clergy, attorneys, and community health care workers on breaks and after work – free from interference from employers. However, the legislation met with fierce opposition from industry representatives, and some are still fighting to get rid of the new law.

This is bad news for Colorado farmworkers’ mental health. Along with the state’s farmers and ranchers, farmworkers are among groups most prone to mental health problems linked to isolation and having to rely for work on elements completely out of their control: weather and unpredictable prices.

Entry gate to a ranch near Mount Sopris/ in Carbondale, Colorado. Credit/ Colin Young via Shutterstock

Small wonder that a national study recently confirmed that mental health disorders were among the most common health problems among nearly one million farmworkers who received care at Migrant Health Centers, with anxiety and depressive disorders most common. In a Midwest study, nearly a third of the farmworkers examined had elevated levels of anxiety and symptoms of depression. In fact, suicide rates among the state’s agricultural workforce are second only to the state’s construction workers – something that a Colorado program involving clinicians and pastors is working to reduce. In Southwest Colorado, the La Plata Family Centers Coalition is also bringing bilingual mental health trainings and referrals to farmworkers. 

“Agricultural workers are some of the most vulnerable, exploited, and isolated in Colorado, working long hours, exposed to the elements, and often dependent on their employers for housing and transportation,” says Kelsey Eberly of FarmSTAND, a nonprofit legal organization that works to transform the animal agriculture industry. “Yet agribusinesses have sought to strip workers of even the minimal protections the new law provides – of their ability to see a community health worker or attorney – in effect claiming a constitutional right to interfere with their workers’ access to these vital services.”

Even though Colorado agribusinesses dismissed their legal challenge to the law last year, the Colorado Livestock Association recently filed an almost identical lawsuit to dismantle it, arguing its members have a right to exclude people from their land. On the other side is the State of Colorado, joined in its defense of the law by Colorado Legal Services, represented by FarmSTAND, Towards Justice, and Farmworker Justice

Cows on Colorado ranch near Ridgeway on County Road 12 (Craig Zerbe via Shutterstock)

In Colorado, most field hand laborers work at far-flung ranches, farms, and vegetable fields, as well as orchards, and numerous others work on Colorado ranches, including sheep, pig, chicken, hog and cattle farms and feedlots, according to Jenifer Rodriguez of Colorado Legal Services. Most tend to be migratory and from Mexico, she says, and are increasingly here on H-2A visas, which are tied to the employer: “This means they don’t choose their employer; it’s the other way around.” And if the job doesn’t work out, their only option is to return to their home country or stay here in the shadows, without legal status.

To find out more about the legal battle’s implications for farmworkers’ mental (and physical) health, MindSite News co-editor Diana Hembree recently talked with Kelsey Eberly, an attorney with FarmSTAND, and Jenifer Rodriguez, managing attorney for the Farm Worker Division of Colorado Legal Services. 

(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length). 

Could you tell us some more about the farm workers you work with, where they’re from and what they’ve been contending with?

Rodriguez: Getting your name on the list for one of these visas is difficult for a lot of people. You have to know the right people.  You may have to pay illegal recruiting fees. You have to put up with a lot because you want to be able to be brought back every year. Every year it’s a brand new application process. 

So, when we’re talking about sexual harassment, wage theft, work-related injuries and other problems going untreated, it’s difficult because a lot of these workers who are here on these visas or undocumented. It’s like, ‘Well, what am I going to do?  I either say something and risk not being brought back next year or being fired and sent home, and I’m never going to find work again. It took me forever to find this job and I’m not sure I’d be able to find another job.’ 

So a lot of times, we see a lot of workers who won’t want to talk about the different abuses or violations that are happening to them. Or they’ll talk about it, but they’re definitely not wanting to act on it.

Can you talk about the kind of outreach you’re doing in terms of the farmworker protections in the new law and what kind of difficulties you face?

Rodriguez: We go and visit workers throughout the state at their housing. It is best to talk to them when they’re not working, and we try to talk to them in a safe space. We’re lawyers, so we try to create this safe, confidential space for them to talk with us if they’re seeking advice.

Often workers are asking for certain types of information that they don’t want other people to find out about. And for years, like other farm worker advocates throughout the country, we’ve had difficulty accessing these workers, many of which are in very rural areas. Sometimes workers rent houses in town, but what’s more common is that the employer has housing built on the work site, either on the employer’s property right next to their house or right next to the orchard or next to the field. Some of the housing locations are pretty isolated. 

It’s always been a challenge to be able to access those workers who are behind the same locked gate as their employer or who’s just right next to the employer’s house. Or they just work really long hours and it’s hard to find them at their housing. Many have also been told, we’ve learned over the years, not to speak with us. [The farmers say] we don’t want you having visitors. We don’t want you getting involved with the local community. You’re here to work.

The law that passed in 2021 helped inform employers as well as workers that you (the worker) do have the right to have visitors at your housing. You have the right to decide who’s going to visit you and who’s not. Your employer can’t interfere with it. And when you’re working, you have the right, when you’re on break, to have somebody drop something off for you or make a medical appointment. That too had to be carved out. A lot of people think that’s common, like, ‘Duh, of course I have the right to do whatever I want during my break’. But it’s a very different world on farms and ranches. It’s a very different power imbalance.

Rolls of hay near the Dallas Divide Mountains in southwest Colorado  (Robert Crum/Shutterstock)

We’ve had that problem in California, too, even though a 1970s law mandated that farmworkers have the same rights as other workers to free association. 

Rodriguez: Right, that’s why our program exists. Agricultural workers have historically been so isolated that they may not be aware of what services and resources are available to them, let alone what their rights are. to go to get to the dentist or the doctor or to send money or to access basic services – especially with Covid, that was a big thing. How to get to the medical clinic or what their address is if they need to call an ambulance. The new law ensured that workers have access to transportation every week in order to have access to basic services and service providers as well.

What do you think is behind the agricultural industry’s opposition to these basic rights?

Eberly: I wouldn’t want to comment on their motivations, but I’m not at all surprised that industry groups are trying to challenge a new protection that makes workers less isolated. I think industries have a very strong interest in preventing workers from being able to access service providers and tell the truth about what’s happening in their workplaces. 

If a worker speaks with an attorney, that might turn into a problem for the employer. They really don’t want to have ‘unwelcome’ people coming onto their property and speaking with workers because it could reveal information that they’d rather not be made public. And legally, both the plaintiff in this case, the Colorado Livestock Association, and the plaintiff in the first case in which we were involved are making the argument that they have private property rights that in effect trump the right of employees to visit with key service providers.

That’s a legal argument that has gained a little bit more traction as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision [regarding employers and private property]. Employers may be trying to make use of what they could perceive as a more employer-and private property-friendly change in the law. But to be clear, we don’t think that providing employees the right to see a service provider free from interference has anything to do with the private property rights of employers. It’s about ensuring workers’ access to basic services, the services that other workers take for granted and enjoy – not about depriving anybody of their property rights. Jenifer, what would you add?

A remote ranch in Ridgeway, Colorado
Owl Creek Pass Road and a remote ranch in Ridgeway, Colorado (Sean Xu/Shutterstock)

Rodriguez: I also am not going to try to speak for them but it’s very apparent to me, in working with these growers and agribusinesses and workers for over 17 years, it’s really the [industry’s] sense of who these workers are is just really gross and unsettling: They’re my workers. They’re here to work for me. We see this even if workers are sitting in their own houses, and I think that’s why the access part is so key. When we go to visit, you’ll see that workers have their own housing; they have their own place to live, and they should have their own right of privacy. But we’re told by owners that this is my property. It’s just the sense of ownership, and it just totally disregards and violates the fundamental rights of those individuals. These workers are grown men – mostly men – who should have the right to do whatever they want on their free time. 

The workers are here for sometimes eight months out of the year. It’s so offensive, this idea that they’re my workers. I brought them here. I have to look out for them, I need to keep them safe. I need to make sure you’re not here to harm them – it’s so paternalistic. Actually, no, I think it’s just racism. Also in this industry, there is such extreme opposition to the same protections that other workers enjoy. Some employers are so shocked at the idea of paying agricultural workers for overtime. It’s just outrageous to them that they have to do that. Obviously, I don’t think we can ignore all these protections are lacking –  and it’s not a coincidence – for farm workers and domestic workers. All these exclusions from these types of protections have been there for years, since plantations and the enslavement of people. 

Could you talk about the farmworker bill’s impact on farmworkers’ morale and mental health? 

Rodriguez: It’s difficult to speak for other people on the aspect of mental health. But I can say just from conversations with my client, Jane Doe, who’s a farm worker, that there is this sense that the 2021 [farmworkers rights] bill was empowering. It’s the idea that, Wait, I can actually maybe attend a parent teacher conference during my lunch, or I can have a doctor visit me, or I could have my lawyer come and bring me my paperwork during the day. (Update: Several weeks after this interview, Colorado Legal Services and the anonymous farmworker’s motion to intervene was granted on November 1, despite it being vigorously contested. This means that CLS is now able to help defend the Colorado law that helps protect agricultural workers’ rights and ensure access to essential service providers.)

I mean, it was very empowering, when we talk about all aspects of this new bill; it’s just trying to level the playing field a little bit. The right to unionize – It’s huge that farm workers now have that. So I get that sense that it’s like, yeah, we should have this, it’s only fair. But when I’m out there doing outreach, I don’t sense a big change in the everyday. The reality is there’s still that fear of retaliation or losing their jobs that drives most daily decisions.

Yes, we now have a piece of paper that says the employer can’t do this, but meanwhile there’s still a lot of fear given the reality. Even since this law has been on the books, we have seen employers who have completely disregarded it. And so I think we all realize that this piece of paper may not be able to save me. And so we even tell our staff that, ‘Yes, you have the law on your side, but you’ve got to be smart. If you have an employer that pulls out a gun on you, then you leave. That’s why I feel like the mental harm – that anxiety and stress – that’s still there. People are still looking over their shoulder and having to be really smart and careful about how much they take advantage of these protections. Because that retaliation is still very much a reality.

Type of work:

Analysis Based on factual reporting, although it Incorporates the expertise of the author/producer and may offer interpretations and conclusions.

Diana Hembree, MS, is MindSite News co-founding editor. She is a health and science journalist who served as a senior editor at Time Inc. Health and its physician’s magazine, Hippocrates, and as news...