Colorado Labor Laws Workplace

Colorado employment laws new for 2021

Colorado has two new and important employment laws taking effect with the beginning of 2021. 2021 hasn’t started great for many people but for Colorado employees it’s not so bad. Workers in Colorado now enjoy the benefits of the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act (HFWA) and Equal Pay for Equal Work Act. Today’s post will break down these two new laws and how they will benefit employees in Colorado workplaces. These laws went into effect on January 1, 2021 so if your employers is covered by these new laws and already failing to meet their obligations under these laws then you should talk to a Colorado employment lawyer right away.

Healthy Families and Workplaces Act (HFWA) in Colorado

Colorado employees now enjoy the benefits of the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act in 2021 and beyond for paid sick leave. In 2021 the HFWA applies to employers with sixteen or more employees. In 2022 it will begin to apply to all Colorado employers. This statute allows employees to stay home for forty-eight hours, or six days, of paid sick leave. This law generally applies to both full time and part time employees; however, there are a few exempt employers. Employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement with more generous terms are exempt. The federal government and employers covered by the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act are also exempt.

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Employees under the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act accrue paid sick leave rapidly. Employees earn one hour of paid sick leave for every thirty hours of work up to the forty-eight hour limit. If a public health emergency, like covid-19, is announced then the accrual is supplemented to eighty hours for a full time employee and for part-time employees a slightly more complicated formula of approximately their normal work time for two weeks. The public health emergency applies even if the employee has exhausted all other paid time off under other policies. Because covid-19 is an active pandemic, the supplement applies for 2021.

The HFWA includes many of the same legal protections and causes of action as other labor and employment laws. The statute requires employers to provide notice in the workplace of these rights in a conspicuous place so look forward to a HFWA notice in your breakroom. The employment law also includes a private cause of action for employees who are denied paid sick leave compliant with the statute and a private cause of action for employees who suffer retaliation for requesting leave under the statute. This means employees denied paid sick leave under the law or retaliated against for requesting it can sue their employer in Colorado courts. There is no grace period for your employer. If you have been denied paid sick leave under the HFWA or your employer retaliated for requesting it then you should talk to Colorado employment lawyers right away.

Colorado’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Act

Prior to 2021, Colorado employees were protected from sex-based and gender-based pay discrimination under federal and Colorado law. The federal Equal Pay Act prohibits sex and gender as a basis for pay discrimination (in addition to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Colorado law also prohibited pay discrimination under a bare bones statute giving a nod to the language of the federal Equal Pay Act. With the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission‘s focus on pay discrimination in the 2010s there has been a focus on beefing up the regulations and statutes prohibiting pay discrimination on the basis of sex or gender.

The new Equal Pay for Equal Work Act strengthens Colorado law and assist employees in pursuing claims for pay discrimination. This statute requires equal rates of pay for similar work across sex, gender and gender-identity. The statute aligns more closely with the federal Equal Pay Act by carving out exceptions for permissible wage discrepancies when based entirely on:

  • (1) a “seniority system”;
  • (2) a “merit system”;
  • (3) a “system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production”;
  • (4) the “geographic location where the work is performed”
  • (5) “education, training, or experience,” but only “to the extent that they are reasonably related to the work”; or
  • (6) “travel,” but only if the travel is a “regular and necessary condition of the work.”

The employer’s reliance on these factors must be reasonable and cannot factor in wage history, which may be affected by a history of pay discrimination.

Wage-based sex and gender discrimination is certainly not a new issue and not one that will go away any time soon. Increasing the tools for regulators to stamp out these practices and for employees to pursue claims when they are the victim of this form of discrimination is critical to reducing its harmful effects. If you believe you have suffered pay discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, or gender identity then you should contact an employment lawyer in Colorado right away. This form of employment discrimination can involve claims under several federal and Colorado employment laws which have their own statutes of limitations and administrative requirements that must be met. Experienced Colorado employment lawyers can help you navigate this system.

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Are paid 15 minute breaks required by law under Colorado labor law?

Colorado employees seek out the answer to this question with high frequency for good reason. Colorado is one of the states that has a labor and employment law that requires many employees to receive a paid break at work and gives employees legal remedies when employers refuse to provide legally required paid breaks. In this post we will discuss some of the legal issues around Colorado’s paid break law and when you might need to talk to an employment lawyer in Colorado if you do not receive paid breaks required by law. Before getting into those details, let’s get to a brief answer under Colorado law about paid 15 minute breaks. Under Colorado law, nonexempt employees are entitled to paid 10 minute breaks every four hours of work but not entitled to 15 minute paid breaks. Employee break laws involve both federal and state law so let’s take a look at how each affects employee rights to unpaid and paid breaks.

Federal law on paid breaks for employees

Federal law does not require paid breaks for employees but establishes minimum standards for whether breaks are paid or unpaid when they occur. The federal employment law that applies to most employees on the subject of breaks is the Fair Labor Standards Act. FLSA sets minimum wage conditions for covered, nonexempt employees in all states. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees are not generally entitled to break periods at all. If, however, an employee receives a break period of less than twenty minutes then the employee must be paid for that break time. 

An important caveat under the FLSA applies to mothers who need break time to express milk. The PPACA created a specific break rule in this situation. The PPACA amended the FLSA under 29 U.S.C. section 207(r)(1) to require reasonable break time for mothers to express milk. This rule applies if:

  • The mother gave birth within the past year;
  • Is covered by the overtime protections of the FLSA;
  • The employer employees 50 or more employees; and
  • The employer cannot claim undue hardship to provide the required break time.

Under the FLSA amendment the break period for expressing milk does not have to be paid; however, if the employer provides breaks under twenty minutes and that break time is used for expressing milk then it must be paid like any other paid break under FLSA.

Federal law provides for a wide range of unpaid break or rest periods to employees under different circumstances. These include:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covered leave;
  • Leave as an accommodation for a disability;
  • Required rest for transportation workers; and
  • Pregnancy leave under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The FLSA does not require employers to provide unpaid rest periods for lunches but if an employer provides a rest period greater than twenty minutes then it is not required to pay for that time so long as the employee is truly relieved of all work on behalf of the employer.

Colorado labor and employment laws on paid breaks

Colorado law specifically requires paid and unpaid break periods for employees covered by the state wage law. Colorado has other state laws that require unpaid break periods for particular purposes like family leave or as an accommodation for a disability; but let’s focus on how Colorado law expands on the FLSA for both paid and unpaid break periods under the normal work day.

Like federal law, Colorado labor laws protect break periods for employees covered by the state wage law. If you are exempt from this law then state law does not require employers to provide typical break or lunch periods. Most employees are covered by Colorado wage law under the Colorado Wage Act, found in Title 8 of the Colorado Revised Statutes.

The rules for typical breaks under Colorado law arise under Colorado Minimum Wage Order 34 and require:

  • A paid 10 minute break in the middle of each four hour work period as practical as possible to place the break in the middle of the four hour work period;
  • An unpaid 30 minute break or lunch when the work schedule exceeds five consecutive hours, if practical;
    • If not practical then the employer must allow the employee an opportunity to each a meal of choice on the clock whether provided by the employer or employee.

An employer can require the employee to stay on work premises during the paid ten minute break but not during the longer unpaid lunch period.

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Putting federal and Colorado paid break laws together

Note that the Colorado Wage Act and the current Minimum Wage Order do not require paid 15 minute break periods although fifteen minutes is the standard break period for many employers. If an employer provides a fifteen minute break period then it must be paid for covered employees under the FLSA; but the employer only has to provide a ten minute period for covered employees under the Colorado Wage Act. Putting the two together for an employee covered by both federal and state minimum wage laws:

  • The employer must provide a paid 10 minute break every four hours;
  • The employer may extend the break period to 15 minutes;
  • If the employer extends the break period to 15 minutes then it must be a paid 15 minute break.

If you work under an individual employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement, the contract or agreement may provide additional requirements for rest periods.

Remedies against a Colorado employer for violating paid break requirements

Although federal and Colorado wage laws overlap and work together to establish minimum paid break rules, the remedies under each law are unique to the requirements of the respective law.

Federal law

Federal law only requires employers to pay for breaks of twenty minutes or less so when employees take these breaks they must count as compensable time in the day worked. The employee’s break time must count within the work hours and receive minimum wage and overtime pay for all compensable work time within the work week. An employer who fails to count compensable breaks within the workweek is liable for unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay (as appropriate).

Colorado law

Colorado law is more expansive in its protections because breaks are required for nonexempt employees. If the employee receives the required ten minute breaks but the employer does not include the breaks within compensable time then the employer is liable to the employee for unpaid wages and overtime pay (as appropriate) for the ten minute breaks. Here, federal and Colorado law is similar.

However, if the employee does not receive the breaks then the employee can pursue the employer for claims related to this violation of the Minimum Wage Order. Employees may not have tremendous claims if the employer only does not provide the required paid ten minute breaks but an employee could nevertheless pursue a claim for the violation. If the employer takes disciplinary action against an employee who demands due paid breaks then the employee may have a stronger claim against the employer for the effects of the disciplinary action. Employees have successfully sued for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy when employers terminate employees in retaliation for demanding the legally required break periods.

Talk to an employment lawyer in Colorado about your employee break rights

If you believe you are not receiving required break periods or not being properly paid for your breaks then you should talk to a Denver employment lawyer right away. Wage-based claims carry a statute of limitations period that applies to each pay period so delay working on your potential claims may limit your right to recover due wages. An employment lawyer can help assess your situation and whether you have claims to pursue against your employer. Recall that some employees are exempt from the break rules under federal and Colorado law. Demanding breaks not required by law or by an employment contract could result in losing your job with recourse. An employment lawyer can help assess whether you are entitled to breaks and what next steps may be available to you.