A farm worker in Malheur County. (Yadira Lopez/Malheur Enterprise)
As Willamette Valley farmers and agricultural workers prepare for the 2021 season, a regulatory battle is playing out over state rules intended to reduce the risk of Covid spreading in farmworker housing.
The Oregon Farm Bureau is seeking to overturn state regulations intended to protect agricultural workers from Covid, arguing the requirements are forcing farmhands into crowded and unsafe conditions. But in Marion County, a farmworkers' group said that the regulations have made working conditions safer.
Last month, the Oregon Farm Bureau filed a petition with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration targeting new requirements for agricultural workplace around social distancing, masking, cleaning, signage, reporting and others. The regulations apply to labor-intensive agricultural establishments where employee work by hand in the field.
The requirements went into effect in June of last year and were intended to prevent Covid from spreading among agricultural workers who often work near one another, or are crammed into tight living spaces or transportation.
Farmworkers have been at particular risk during the pandemic because of challenges around social distancing, unreliable access to personal protective equipment, testing and information on support services, a study released by University of Oregon researchers in September found.
Marion County is one of the most agriculturally oriented in the state, with nearly 6,000 people employed in agriculture, according to state numbers. ZIP codes in north Salem and Woodburn, which have high concentrations of farmworkers and Latinos have been particularly affected by Covid. The Woodburn area has one of the highest concentrations of people diagnosed with Covid in Oregon.
But Samantha Bayer, the bureau’s policy counsel, wrote in a January letter to Michael Wood, the head of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that regulations have “caused substantial harm to both farmworkers and the farm families who employ them.”
“We believe there is a way to protect essential agricultural employees and farm operators, while also keeping farms viable and employees housed and earning wages,” she said.
The Oregon Farm Bureau, which represents 7,000 farmers and ranchers, also filed a petition with the workplace safety agency asking it to scrap the regulations and work with it to craft a more workable set.
The petition takes particular issue with the requirements around housing provided by agricultural producers. According to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there are 320 registered agricultural labor housing sites in the state.
Under the regulations, bunk beds in farmworker housing can’t be used by unrelated individuals. Beds are required to be separated by at least 6 feet or an impermeable barrier. Sleeping areas without bunk beds must have at least 50 square feet of floor space per employee. Isolation units are also required for workers exposed to Covid.
The regulations have made farmworker housing unworkable for many agricultural businesses, she said. With agricultural employers offering less housing workers have been pushed into “entirely unregulated environments,” Bayer said in her letter. She referenced reports from farmworker advocacy groups that workers have had to live in cars, sleep on couches or move into crowded housing shared by multiple generations.
Bayer, in an interview, pointed to remarks by Reyna Lopez, the executive director of Woodburn-based Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, as well as Kathy Keesee-Morales, of Medford-based Unete Center for Farmworker Advocacy, speaking to the difficulties farmworkers face in quarantining in multi-generational housing. Neither mentioned adverse effects from the regulations.
“The issue of substandard labor housing, and its inadequacy - has been a problem for decades,” Lopez told Salem Reporter in an email. She said the problem shouldn’t be blamed on regulations or farmworker advocates.
Lopez, whose organization represents 6,000 farmworkers, said the overwhelming majority of her members and supporters saw improvements after the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted the rules. She said her members reported that employers were trying to follow them.
“This means that people felt safer coming to work, because they knew precautions were being taken,” said Lopez, who credited the regulations with keeping Oregon’s Covid rates relatively low.
Bayer clarified she heard from bureau members, hundreds of which provide housing to workers, about farmworkers living in their cars. She said that members have also heard about farmworkers not using hotel vouchers to quarantine because they didn’t want to be away from family.
She said the state already has a shortage of housing and shelters disproportionately affects Oregon’s Latino population and was made worse by last fall’s wildfires.
Many agricultural producers rely on this housing during the summer when farmhands harvest crops, said Bayer. While agricultural companies can face a Class C misdemeanor for violating the regulations, Bayer said the response hasn’t been heavy-handed.
Last summer, she said the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has seen a record number of complaints during the pandemic, has tried to work with employers and issued citations for minor infractions, such as not displaying a poster informing workers of protections.
“We haven’t seen massive non-compliance issues,” she said.
She also said agricultural producers have been largely successful in preventing outbreaks, particularly from farmworker housing. Agriculture has accounted for just 2.6% of workplace outbreaks with 426 cases, according to a database kept by the Oregon AFL-CIO that’s based on Oregon Health Authority data.
The workplace safety agency has issued at least 23 Covid-related citations involving agricultural operations, according to Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokesman Aaron Corvin. He said nearly all of them were issued under regulations addressing employer housing for agricultural workers.
Nargess Shadbeh, the Director of Farmworker Program at the Oregon Law Center, said in a statement that the pandemic has exacerbated problems with inadequate and substandard farmworker housing. She said her group, which helped spur the regulations, is working with the worker safety agency to strengthen regulations.
“These rules must include better protections than the previous rule, not take them away,” she said. “We have the opportunity to learn from the lessons of the past year and move forward with the best science available on ventilation, reduced density, social distancing, masks, training, enhanced testing and access to vaccines.”
Public comments on the Oregon Farm Bureau’s petition are due Feb. 24. Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also going to propose another permanent set of Covid-related workplace regulations that’ll also address farmworker housing,
With the harvest season approaching, both Lopez and Bayer said the regulations need to be finalized soon. Bayer said farmers need to know how much housing they can offer when they apply for visas for immigrant workers. Lopez said thousands of workers will begin migrating from May to October, many with families in tow and many likely unvaccinated.
Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.
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