Farm workers play a vital role agriculture, but are often faced with low pay, a lack of worker protection in the law and only seasonal job opportunities.
“Seasonal farm workers are one of the lowest paying jobs in the country. They still do not receive overtime for their work, because the law doesn’t doesn’t allow them to earn over time,” Leon Ortega, Director of Workforce for Rocky Mountain Service Employment Redevelopment (RMSER), told The Fort Morgan Times during a recent interview. “Even if they work 70-80 hours a week, they still get paid the hourly wage.”
The Farm Worker Jobs Program seeks to give farm workers an avenue to find employment in other industries. RMSER has partnered with an online learning platform called MedCerts to give a tuition-free online education in the medical and information technology fields.
“Health care and IT are two new high-demand career opportunities all across the country, as well as right there in Colorado,” Sandy Mead, National Director of Workforce Development at MedCerts, said. “The goal is for the seasonal farmworkers to be able to get skills that are going to help them have solid careers.”
The farm workers job program is a product of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and RMSER is Colorado’s portal to the program. Anyone who was recently employed as a seasonal agricultural worker can apply for tuition
“There is a tuition cost of MedCerts. That’s where we come in,” Ortega said. “We could come in with tuition assistance with the National Farm Worker Jobs Program, pay the tuition and the fees, and anything that’s related to the course that needs to be paid.”
Ortega said MedCerts is great for the program because of its flexible schedule and mostly online format.
“It’s open entry, open exit. They do not have to start at the beginning of a semester like you do with a normal community college or university,” Ortega said. “These individuals can start in February, they can start in March; they can start whenever they’re ready to start the course.”
The program typically provides for 100-120 workers in a given year. In recent years the program has found a lot of success in northeastern Colorado.
“Actually we have more individuals enrolled in the northern and northeast area than we do in the southern area at this time, and that that’s kind of a historical for the last few years,” Ortega said. “The Adams County area, the Weld County area and the Morgan County and Fort Morgan area are high areas for agriculture workers, and we’ve been successful in finding people (there).”
Though at first glance there isn’t much crossover skill between working on a farm and working in IT or health care, Ortega said there’s a number of ways they do overlap. Farm workers are often good with their hands, hard working and — of growing importance in IT and health care — bilingual.
“Farm workers are very hard working individuals. They have to show up to work on time; their ability to work in extreme conditions, working out in the field, or in the onion sheds or potato sheds, they endure a lot and they’re used to working long hours,” Ortega said. “We may not call these skills, but they have the basics of work ethic that would go along with a lot of these different professions.”
The program doesn’t end at education, and RMSER provides on-the-job training programs, instruction on resume building and more.
“We can assist when they start working, if they need tools, they need equipment, if they need clothing for their new job, they need transportation assistance to go back to work until they get paid, we can provide that as well,” Ortega said. “Our program is kind of all around program to make sure that that individual can be successful.”
To learn more about MedCerts, visit medcerts.com