If you run a restaurant in Colorado without clearly understanding the labor laws governing how you do business, you could be setting yourself up for trouble. Consequences might include lawsuits, fines, and closures—like this cafe in Castle Rock that got shut down for 30 days for refusing to follow social distancing orders during the pandemic.
But Colorado has some specific guidelines regarding payment and overtime for restaurateurs to be aware of, and depending on your location, you may even have to pay a higher minimum wage.
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Overview of labor laws in Colorado
The Colorado Division of Labor Standards and Statistics makes sure restaurants follow the state’s labor laws, including:
- The Colorado Wage Act requires Colorado employers to pay wages on time.
- The Colorado Overtime and Minimum Pay Standards Order #38 regulates overtime, minimum salaries, breaks, tips, uniforms, and recordkeeping.
Colorado restaurants must meet other legal requirements that govern food safety, alcohol service, compensation, overtime, breaks, and child labor. Noncompliance could result in hefty fines—or worse, a shutdown.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regulates how restaurant employees must handle the food they prepare and serve. They inspect each restaurant between one and three times a year.
The frequency varies based on factors like how complex the restaurant’s menu is, whether it includes food made from raw products, and whether the restaurant has had past violations or suspected (or confirmed) foodborne illness outbreaks—like the Taco Del Gnar in Ridgway facing two lawsuits after a suspected outbreak of the intestinal parasite Cyclospora.
During these inspections, the Health Department will make sure the restaurant is following all hygienic practices that protect the food’s safety, including but not limited to:
- Employees’ cleanliness (hand-washing, clean fingernails, jewelry, clean clothes, hair nets, gloves)
- Contamination-free food preparation areas
- Proper food storage and labeling
- Proper procedures for discarding contaminated food
In Colorado, restaurants can serve alcohol seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Anyone 18 years old and older can serve alcohol—but 18-year-olds can only pour and serve under the supervision of someone 21 or older.
Child labor laws in Colorado
For any workers under 16 years old, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment has the following restrictions:
- Three hours or less of work time on school days.
- No more than eight hours of work on a non-school day.
- No more than 18 hours a week during a school week.
- Maximum of 40 hours per week during non-school weeks (like holiday breaks or summer vacation).
Employers who don’t follow these guidelines with minors can face misdemeanor charges and fines from $20 to $100 per offense if convicted.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis also signed the Remedies At Law For Violating Colorado Youth Act in June 2023, which allows minors to sue for their injuries if they get hurt on the job. That’s in addition to workers’ compensation, so violating these laws can be costly.
Minimum wage and overtime regulations
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enforced by the Wage and Hour Division of The U.S. Department of Labor, sets federal standards for wages and overtime. It makes sure everyone gets paid fairly for their work, which includes rules about minimum wages and overtime pay.
What is the minimum wage in Colorado?
In 2023, Colorado’s minimum wage for non-tipped hourly workers (like dishwashers, managers, and chefs) is $13.65 per hour, and the tipped employee minimum wage is $10.63 per hour. The employer is responsible for the difference when an employee’s total tips and hourly wage don’t add up to at least the state minimum wage.
Denver will increase its minimum wage by $1 in early 2024 and bring the city’s hourly minimum wage to $18.29 and its tipped minimum wage to $15.27.
The Colorado Overtime and Minimum Pay Standards Order (COMPS) outlines rights and responsibilities related to minimum wage eligibility, overtime pay, and break time.
Hourly employees qualify for time-and-a-half overtime pay if they:
- Work over 40 hours in a workweek.
- Work 12 hours or more consecutive hours in a workday.
Laws around tipped employees in Colorado
Tipped employees may earn a lower minimum wage than other workers if the tips make up the difference. However, tip pooling and tip credits are allowed in Colorado restaurants, which affect how much the employee takes home:
- Tip pooling: Employers can require that employees pay part of their tips into a “pool” to be shared with other workers.
- Tip credits: This is when employers pay tipped workers a lower minimum wage, making the tips essentially a “credit” for them.
Paying less than minimum wage or failing to pay overtime can be costly: One Denver-area bistro recently had to shell out almost $243,000 in back pay after not paying minimum wage, keeping tips, and denying overtime.
Colorado laws around breaks
All breaks are not created equal: Colorado has several laws outlining the types of breaks required during the workday.
Recommended Reading: How to Deal With Labor Law Compliance Using Overtime Alerts & Custom Breaks
In Colorado, once employees work for five hours, they're entitled to a 30-minute unpaid break period for a meal—completely uninterrupted and duty-free. However, if the nature of the person’s job prevents them from being relieved of all duties for 30 minutes, they must be paid for their meal periods.
Colorado requires employers to pay for rest breaks if the individual has worked at least four hours. These paid rest periods are 10 minutes long and are usually in the middle of an employee’s shift. For example, if employees work from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., their break would usually be at 10 a.m.
Colorado employment law guarantees restaurant employees the right to a safe workplace, sick leave, discrimination protection, and more.
Anti-discrimination and harassment
Colorado law protects all employees from workplace harassment with laws that prevent hostile working environments. Anti-discrimination and harassment laws (like the Protecting Opportunities And Workers' Rights (POWR) Act) also prohibit employers from discriminating and retaliating against workers in protected classes like race, religion, sex, disability, and age.
Without the proper training and safety precautions in place, someone could get badly hurt in a restaurant: Hot equipment, wet floors, tripping hazards, sharp knives, heavy packages, and more can cause serious injuries.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for regulating workplace safety and protecting employees. In Colorado, OSHA can visit and conduct on-site investigations to ensure the restaurant staff is following all safety protocols surrounding:
- Hazard communication (there must be a program in place)
- Slip, trip, and fall hazards
- Personal protective equipment (PPE) like cut-proof gloves, aprons, and slip-resistant shoes
- Fire and electrical safety
- Proper lifting and carrying techniques (and equipment, if necessary)
Right to organize
Colorado has been at the forefront of workers’ rights, and restaurant employees have the right to organize, join labor unions, and engage in collective bargaining activities, as protected by federal labor laws.
The Colorado Labor Peace Act protects employee and employer rights and oversees collective bargaining unit elections. Under the Act, employees have the freedom to organize (and the right not to organize) without the threat of interference or retaliation from their employer.
Employers that violate this face misdemeanor charges and fines between $50 and $100 for the first offense and $100 and $500 for the second offense.
There are plenty of workers in Colorado exercising their rights under the Act:
- Mercury Cafe employees are unionizing under the Communication Workers of America, citing irregular hours, no health insurance, and unpredictable pay as leading concerns.
- Unionized Starbucks employees joined a nationwide protest against unfair working conditions, citing discrimination, unfair pay, and lack of benefits as grievances.
- Casa Bonita employees organized under the name #WeAreTeamCasa to petition for fair wage practices, access to health benefits, and better communication between owners, management, and staff.
Additional resources for Colorado restaurateurs
If you plan on opening a restaurant in Colorado, be sure to check out these other helpful resources before opening your doors:
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