May 10th, 2023

Guide to Colorado Employment Laws: A Changing Landscape

Labor and employment laws are designed to provide protections for employees and employers in relation to pay practices, harassment and discrimination, leave of absence policies, safety and security, organized labor, and so forth. Some of the laws are set at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Labor, while other mandates are created by state law, or even by local cities/municipalities.

The State of Colorado has instituted many employment laws that offer a higher level of protection or more generous benefits to employees than federal law, including in the following areas:

  • Higher minimum wage rates
  • Broader protections for anti-discrimination
  • Pregnancy accommodations
  • Leave and time off requirements

That withstanding, Colorado remains an “at-will” employment state. This means that employers and employees alike may terminate their working relationship at any time with or without just cause. It is important to note, however, that the reason for termination must not be an illegal one. There are anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws that prevent employers from using an employee’s protected status as a factor in employment decisions. If an employee believes they have been terminated for an illegal reason, they have a right to file a complaint.

Employers must comply with all federal, state, and municipal laws that affect employment relationships in order to avoid harmful penalties.


Colorado HR Laws: Wages, Breaks, and Leaves of Absence


Minimum Wage

In the United States, the Department of Labor sets the minimum wage that can be paid to employees across the country. Additionally, each state may set its own minimum wage, provided that it meets the federal minimum requirement. As of 2023, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Colorado currently has a state minimum wage rate of $13.65, with tipped employees earning $9.54 per hour minimum wage. The City and County of Denver established an even higher minimum wage requirement than the State of Colorado, by setting the minimum at $17.29 and $14.27 for tipped employees. Employers must pay in accordance with the highest minimum wage in effect in the location the work is performed.

Colorado employment law also requires all trainees to be paid the same standard minimum wage rate or higher, including:

  • New hire trainees
  • Apprentices
  • Learners
  • Student workers

Colorado also mandates a minimum salary for workers holding a position that is classified as exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act. For 2023, this minimum is $50,000. This minimum salary will increase to $55,000 in 2024 and is set to increase every subsequent year based on inflation.


Tipped Wages

waiter-serving-food-customers-tip-wagesTipped workers must earn enough in tips to meet the standard minimum wage rate of $13.56. If they are making $9.54 per hour and only earn $3.00 per hour in tips, they would only be earning $12.54 per hour. In this case, employers would be required to make up the difference and pay the standard rate of $13.56. If tips exceed the standard rate, this isn’t an issue.

As well, while Colorado law does allow the pooling of tips in order to share them with other employees, employers should take care when determining to whom the tips should be allocated. If an employer requires a tipped employee to share their tips with an employee who is not in a customarily tipped position, the tip credit is nullified.

Overtime Requirements for Colorado Employers

Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, all employees, with few exceptions, must be paid overtime wages when work hours exceed an acceptable level as described under law. Colorado’s overtime laws are more generous to employees than federal overtime laws. While federal law dictates overtime pay in the amount of 1.5 times regular pay for hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek, Colorado requires 1.5 times regular pay when employees work:

  • Over 12 hours in a single workday
  • 12 consecutive hours, regardless of the start and end time of the workday(s)
  • More than 40 hours in a single workweek


Colorado Breaks for Nursing Mothers

nursing-mother-work-time-offColorado has a law that requires employers to provide employees with reasonable break times to express milk for up to two years after the child is born. Employers must either provide specific unpaid break time or permit nursing mothers to use their existing rest and meal breaks.

It is also required that employers make reasonable efforts to provide a private location where nursing mothers can express breast milk. The location should be in close proximity to the employee’s workstation, and bathrooms or toilet stalls do not meet minimum requirements. “Reasonable efforts” means that if providing a private location would cause the business undue hardship, that part of the mandate may be waived.

For example, if a small business has limited financial resources and a one-room rented office space, it may not have the capacity to provide a private space as described under law. In this case, the requirement may be waived. The employer should still provide required breaks, and should work with the employee to make reasonable arrangements so that they can express milk.


Ban the Box Law

Colorado’s Chance to Compete Act, also known as the “ban the box” law, is designed to protect individuals with criminal records from from being discriminated against during the early stages of applying for a job. Namely, employers may not:

  • Advertise that those with criminal histories should not apply.
  • State on any application, including electronic ones, that persons should not apply if they have a criminal history.
  • Request disclosure of criminal history or inquire into the details of such history

The purpose of the law is to encourage employers to carefully consider an applicant’s qualifications for the job and to avoid immediate exclusion from consideration due to their criminal history. All employers, regardless of size or type, are required to follow this law.


Leave and Time Off

The State of Colorado requires employers to provide employees with time off or other paid family leave benefits for certain instances, including:

  • Paid Sick Leave
  • Jury Duty
  • Voting Leave
  • Military/National Guard Leave
  • Civil Air Patrol/Qualified Volunteers Leave
  • Victims Leave
  • Family and Medical Leave


Paid (and Unpaid) Leave Requirements


Paid Sick Leave

The Healthy Families and Workplaces Act outlines the sick leave requirements for the state of Colorado. Under this Act, employees are entitled to one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked, totaling up to 48 hours of sick leave per year.

Sick leave is paid at a regular rate (gross wages) and can be used for:

  • Mental or physical illness
  • Any injury or condition that interferes with work or job duties
  • Medical care related to the diagnosis and treatment of these conditions or ailments
  • Preventive care, including vaccines
  • Domestic violence, sexual assault, or harassment
  • Caring for family members that are ill or have special needs

Jury Duty

Jury duty leave is provided under Colorado laws and should be paid at a regular rate, limited to  $50 per day for a maximum of 3 days in pay unless the employer has another arrangement in place.

Voting Leave

Employees must be given two hours of paid time off work to vote if their shift, unless the polls are open three hours before or after their shift. The employee must request the leave at least a day ahead of time.

Military/National Guard Leave

In addition to federal rights granted under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, Colorado provides further protections. Employees called to duty or training with the Colorado National Guard or US armed forces must be provided 15 days of unpaid leave per year to accommodate this service. Employees may return to work with no consequences for absences.

Civil Air Patrol/Qualified Volunteers Leave

Colorado provides protections for Civil Air Patrol and other volunteer emergency workers who give their time to support the efforts of qualified emergency relief organizations. If an employee is called to service during a disaster, private sector employers must provide up to unpaid days off per year.

Victims Leave

Leave is provided for victims of domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault and for those involved in domestic abuse situations. Affected employees may request and be provided up to three days of leave, paid or unpaid, in the course of a year. This time allows the employee to handle a variety of related tasks, such as seeking medical care, meeting with legal counsel, and obtaining restraining orders.

Family and Medical Leave

Effective January 1, 2024, all employees in Colorado will have access to paid leave to care for themselves or family members when eligible circumstances arise. Eligible employees may take up to twelve weeks of leave, and four additional weeks in instances of pregnancy or childbirth complications. Employees receive payment during leave through a worker-funded, state-facilitated program under Colorado’s Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMLI) program, or through an approved, employer-provided plan. If an employer is also mandated to provide leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, that leave may run concurrent to FAMLI leave if the absence meets the eligibility requirements under both leave programs.

Optional Leave and Time Off

Under Colorado law, employers are not required to make eligible employees provide the following leave unless it is part of their own policies:

  • Bereavement Leave
  • Holiday Leave
  • Vacation Time

Employers that choose to provide paid vacation should be aware that the State of Colorado has provided guidance that employers may not cause their employees to forfeit accrued/earned vacation. This means that “use it or lose it” vacation plans that remove accrued balances at the end of a year are not recommended. Additionally, the guidance described accrued paid time off as compensation that must be paid. Therefore, if an unused, accrued vacation balance remains at termination it must be paid out.


Download Our Guide: Colorado Employment Laws & Regulations

Last year, many new Colorado laws and regulations were signed into effect, like the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act. This year employers can expect more.

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The Colorado Equal Pay for Equal Work Act

At the start of 2021, Colorado enacted the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act. This Act requires that every Colorado employer provide equal pay and benefits to employees who do substantially similar work, without regard to protected class.

There are six acceptable justifications for variances in pay:

  • Location
  • Education and training
  • Experience
  • Seniority or merit
  • Production quality/quantity
  • Travel

Otherwise, they must pay everyone the same rate. The Equal Pay Act also addresses requirements related to wage record retention and transparency, as well as for announcing advancement opportunities within the organization.

Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act

As part of fair employment practices, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act prevents employers from discriminating based on many protected classes, including race, color, disability, gender, sexual orientation (including transgender status), national origin, ancestry, religion, creed, and age. This act provides more protections than Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as it covers age, disability, and sexual orientation, which are exclused from Title VII. Also, while Title VII protections are extended to employers with 15 or more employees, CADA applies to all employers in Colorado.

This act also includes protections for employees who report, oppose, or assist another employee in opposing any type of unlawful discrimination.

Occupational Safety Guidelines Under Colorado Law

no-smoking-sign-health-lawsThe State of Colorado mandates a variety of health and safety requirements for the well-being of all employees, including:

  • Smoking in workplaces, or within 25 feet of the entrances, is prohibited by the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. There are a few exceptions, but they are limited.
  • Texting while driving is prohibited by all employees and those driving business vehicles.
  • Wearing headphones or earbuds in both ears while driving is also illegal under Colorado occupational health and safety laws.

Rest and Meal Break Requirements

Colorado employment laws also require employers to provide employees with rest and meal breaks after a certain number of hours have been worked. Rest periods are 10-minute breaks that are earned after four hours of work. Ideally, breaks are preferred to be given as close to halfway through a four-hour period as possible.

In Colorado, rest breaks are required as follows:

  • Less than 2 hours – 0
  • 2-6 hours – 1
  • 6-10 hours – 2
  • 10-14 hours – 3
  • 14-18 hours – 4
  • 18-22 hours – 5
  • 22+ hours – 6

In addition, anyone working over five hours is entitled to a 30-minute meal break where they are not working or performing any work-related duties. If someone works through lunch, they must to be compensated for that time, regardless of whether or not they obtained authorization to do so.

Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment has the authority to audit compliance standards for rest breaks. Employers should take steps to ensure breaks are provided in accordance with law.


Child Labor Laws in Colorado

colorado-hr-laws-colorado-labor-laws-child-laborFinally, let’s address protections for some of our most vulnerable workers in the state: children. Conditions for minors working in the state are regulated by the Colorado Youth Employment Opportunity Act (CYEOA), which defines a “minor” as anyone under the age of 18, except for those who have already received a high school diploma or GED.

In the state of Colorado, minors are not permitted to work in the following fields or occupations due to the hazards involved:

  • Mining
  • Logging
  • Quarrying
  • Operating power machinery
  • Manufacturing, handling, or storing explosives
  • Operating high-pressure or high-temperature boilers

Different rules apply to minors based on their age. Here’s a breakdown of the laws.

Minors Under 16

Those who are under age 16 must follow the rules below if they want to work in the state of Colorado:

  • No more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours per week of work
  • No more than 3 hours of work on a school day
  • No more than 18 hours per week during school hours
  • Working hours limited to 7 AM to 7 PM during school
  • Able to work until 9 PM during summer
  • Must have an employment permit that is issued by the school

Minors Age 16-17

The requirements are much less strict for older teens. There are no restrictions on the times of day when they can work, even during the school year. However, they cannot work more than 8 hours each day or more than 40 hours per week.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to employment laws, Colorado is a state that has enacted some of the most generous, employee-focused mandates in the United States. Both employers and employees alike should become familiar with the laws that govern the employment relationship in our state.

Employers should have a reliable resource to help them navigate the ever-changing employment landscape in Colorado. Obsidian HR is a Colorado-based Professional Employer Organization. Our team of knowledgeable professionals are on hand to support you and your organization.