Oregon Legislature. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Speaking before a legislative committee earlier this month, Juliana Valencia told lawmakers how the temperatures rose to 100 degrees while she and other farmworkers labored in hazelnut orchard in August last year. 

Valencia, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, said her boss taunted her after she and her coworkers asked for water. She said her boss finally brought water after noon, but it was warm and dirty. Each of the six workers had to drink from the same glass, putting them at risk of contracting Covid, she said. 

After one dehydrated worker nearly passed out, they began demanding water, said Valencia. Their boss responded by firing them, she said. 

Now a bill is advancing through the Oregon Legislature that’s intended to protect workers like Valencia. Labor groups say it’s necessary to close workplace safety gaps exposed by the pandemic. But business groups say it could be abused and will create more expensive legal hassles for companies. 

Currently, it’s illegal in Oregon for an employer to fire, demote or change the scheduling of an employee who raises a safety concern or complains to state workplace safety regulators. Workers who think they’ve been retaliated against can file a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries or take their employer to court. But the worker has the burden of proving they were retaliated against. 

Senate Bill 483 reverses that burden and creates a legal presumption that a worker was retaliated against if they experience an adverse action from their employer within 60 days of raising a health or safety concern. 

“There is also great fear in our community,” Valencia told the committee. “Laws like this are only going to help more farmworkers have confidence the law is strong enough to protect us.” 

Valencia, who didn’t specify what part of the state she lives in, said she’s working with the Woodburn-based farmworker union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste on a retaliation claim. 

The Salem area has already seen claims of employer retaliation. A year ago, a worker in Salem’s Amazon warehouse filed a complaint against the retail giant alleging she faced retaliation for speaking out about workplace safety issues related to Covid. Amazon is contesting the lawsuit in court. 

The legislation is one of multiple bills backed by labor and progressive advocacy groups that are aimed at bolstering workers rights, which they’ve seen mixed success in advancing.  

The bill cleared the Senate last month and is moving through the House. 

It’s opposed by business groups who say it’ll unfairly cause legal headaches and expenses for businesses who’ve already had to cope with pandemic-related burdens.  

Tom Hoffert, CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, told Salem Reporter that his group is in opposition to the bill. He said employers want to protect their employees, and the bill would create new difficulties and risks for companies. 

The bill has the backing of labor unions who say that the pandemic has highlighted shortcomings in legal protections for workers. They point to a report from the National Employment Law Project showing that one in eight workers have seen possible retaliation by employers who’ve raised pandemic-related safety concerns. 

They also point out that workers have flooded the state’s workplace safety agency with tens of thousands more complaints than normal because of the pandemic. 

“Those concerns aren’t always easy to raise and sometimes employers take retaliatory measures against workers when they do,” said Jess Giannettino Villatoro, Oregon AFL-CIO political director, at a House Rules Committee hearing earlier this month. 

But Paloma Sparks, vice president and general counsel at Oregon Business and Industry, told the committee that employees can make complaints that aren’t supported by evidence or actual safety issues. 

She said that an employee who is likely to be disciplined for being late or other reasons could make a complaint to get off of the hook. Workers can file complaints anonymously with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Sparks said that employers would have the difficult task of proving they did not know a worker filed a claim to prove they didn’t retaliate. 

While an employer may ultimately prevail in proving they didn’t retaliate they’ll still have racked up attorney’s fees, said Sparks. Employers might just pay settlements, she said. 

“Employees will be able to use this as more of a weapon against employers,” she said. 

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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