Workers unload potatoes for storage at Threemile Canyon Farms outside of Boardman on Wednesday, Sept. 30 (Ben Lonergan/East Oregonian)

UMATILLA COUNTY — A survey of Oregon farmworkers indicates a majority of farms are taking precautions for COVID-19, but conditions in the fields and at home can make it difficult for workers to avoid exposure to the virus.

The Oregon Farmworker COVID-19 Study team, a partnership of researchers at Oregon universities and organizations that serve farmworkers, released preliminary findings after conducting 214 in-depth interviews of Oregon farmworkers, including some in Umatilla and Morrow counties. They plan to interview 300 in total before releasing the final report.

“When PPE and masks are available, farmworkers take necessary precautions and safety procedures at home and in the workplace to minimize exposure to COVID-19,” survey organizer Jennifer Martinez said during a news conference last month. “These are all what farmworkers told us, that they were changing their practices. But still, 39% of farmworkers reported moments during the day where they could not maintain 6 feet of distance in the workplace.”

Of the 214 workers surveyed so far, 77% reported that their co-workers wear masks at all times on the job, 57% reported washing their hands at least five times during the work day and 68% reported that they or their foreman had received training on how to stay safe from COVID-19.

Marty Myers, general manager of Threemile Canyon Farms outside of Boardman, said Eastern Oregon staples, such as onions and potatoes, are easier to harvest while staying socially distant than hand-picked fruit crops more prevalent in other parts of the state.

Still, he said activities that might bring workers into closer proximity with each other — mainly sorting and loading potatoes into storage — have been adjusted to keep workers farther apart. Masks have been required on the farm since March, he said, and nonessential visitors are not allowed on the property. Picnic tables have been set up 6 feet apart outdoors and employees are encouraged to take breaks there instead of indoors.

Vans transporting workers are now only filled to half capacity, masks are required inside them and workers must have a temperature check before boarding the a van. Housing available to farmworkers have only two employees to a room, he said, and they have extra rooms available to quarantine anyone who is showing symptoms or has been exposed.

“In total, we’ve taken this thing very seriously,” Myers said.

Despite the precautions, he said Threemile Canyon Farms has had 33 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Myers said contact tracing suggests those cases have mostly come from workers’ personal gatherings in their off-hours, and pointed to the spike of 18 cases that happened in early July, just after Father’s Day and the Fourth of July.

“In August, we turned the corner, and I think our employees have really grasped the seriousness of this virus,” he said.

The farm, which includes a dairy that has cows that need to be milked year-round, has 350 full-time, year-round workers, with another 150 who are part time. Myers said early in the pandemic the farm gave workers an extra 10 days of sick leave to discourage people from feeling they needed to hide symptoms in order to work or ignore advice to quarantine. In some cases, he said, workers who needed it were given additional days beyond that. One employee was too sick to work for 45 days.

“Our extended sick leave has cost us close to $200,000 but we feel that’s a great investment because these people are our team members, and we want them to be healthy,” he said.

At the Oregon Farmworker COVID-19 Study news conference, those who conducted the interviews for the surveys shared stories they heard from farmworkers who felt their employers were not doing enough to protect them.

Antonio Garcia of Centro Cultural, who interviewed blueberry pickers in Washington County, said workers told him they could not maintain social distancing while loading blueberries onto the truck. One woman told him that while the rules stated they were supposed to stay 6 feet apart while picking, people often moved closer to each other in order to be able to pick as quickly as they needed to.

Kathy Keesee-Morales, of Unete Center for Farmworker Advocacy, said some employers were placing pressure on employees to not follow recommended practices for containing the spread of the virus.

“We found people working in hemp here, especially in one case, where there was a foreman who told people if they did have symptoms of COVID, that they were not to report their symptoms to anyone and they were just supposed to stay home until they felt better,” she said.

Keesee-Morales surveyed farmworkers in Jackson County, and said the wildfires that tore through the county in towns like Phoenix and Talent had burned down the homes of many farmworkers in the area, or caused them to lose running water and electricity. In one case, she said, 19 people were now living in one home together, while in another she heard of, 11 people were sharing a single hotel room.

“They’re obviously unable to practice social distancing at home, so we really fear they’re going to be increasing their exposure to COVID,” she said.

Working outdoors in what was at times the worst air quality in the entire world was also a significant health concern on top of COVID-19, she said.

Other interviewers found that even when farmworkers were being given instructions to avoid COVID-19, those instructions weren’t understood by the portion of farmworkers who speak languages other than English or Spanish.

In addition to the difficulties of being an essential worker putting in long hours, interviewers said farmworkers are also experiencing the same stressors as workers in other industries during the pandemic, including a lack of child care during distance learning.

One farmworker in Milton-Freewater quoted anonymously in the study said their 15-year-old was feeling “a little angry, stressed and depressed” about having to complete his own online schooling while also being in charge of helping his younger siblings with theirs as his parent picked fruit.

Thirty-seven percent of farmworkers surveyed said they had lost months of work because of COVID-19, while another 39% said they had lost weeks of wages this year.

The study team included a list of recommendations with their findings. Team members said they were particularly concerned about strengthening protections for workers who blow the whistle on OSHA violations or face retaliation from employers for staying home while sick or after close contact with COVID-19. They would also like to see increased OSHA enforcement, including unannounced inspections.

Reyna Lopez of PCUN and Latinx Working Families United said they have been working on legislation to help empower workers to report violations and allow them to collectively bargain.

“It’s something we’ve been dreaming up for a really long time and hopefully we can make it happen next year,” she said.

NOTE: This story is published with the permission of East Oregonian Media Group as part of a collaborative of news organizations in Oregon sharing news content. Salem Reporter is part of the arrangement.