After pressure from health care officials and workers' rights advocates, workplace safety regulators announced emergency rules Tuesday, April 28, to protect agricultural workers from COVID-19 outbreaks ahead of the harvest season.
Supporters of the rules say they're necessary to promote the safety of seasonal farmworkers who will be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, while being housed in close living quarters and using communal bathrooms and other shared spaces.
Many growers across the state, however, say the rules will be too costly and burdensome to implement by the deadline, at a time when agricultural producers already are facing substantial economic pressures.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration's new rules will be in effect from Monday, May 11, through Oct. 28.
Growers will be required to decrease the ratio of toilets and handwashing stations at field operations from 1 per 20 workers to 1 per 10 workers. Such facilities also must be cleaned three times per day.
Beds in housing sites must be placed at least 6 feet apart, and unrelated workers must not share bunk beds.
Farms that provide transportation for workers must require passengers and drivers to wear facial coverings, and passengers must be spaced at least 3 feet apart. High-contact areas of vehicles must be sanitized before each trip or at least twice a day if vehicles are used continuously.
Additionally, growers must appoint at least one social-distancing officer to ensure unrelated workers remain 6 feet apart during all work activities and in housing sites.
The OSHA rules also include a provision allowing employers to provide as many toilets and handwashing stations as possible until the required ratio is achieved if they can demonstrate market availability prevents immediate compliance.
"This temporary rule reflects the need to rapidly address COVID-19 in operations where the nature of the work — and the spaces in which that work occurs — raise particularly daunting challenges," said Michael Wood, administrator for OSHA. "At the same time, it accounts for the feasibility issues employers may encounter as they step up to fulfill these new responsibilities."
Dr. Eva Galvez is a family physician at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Clinic in Hillsboro who, along with farmworker advocates from the Oregon Law Center, petitioned OSHA to increase protections for farmworkers ahead of peak farm labor season.
With parents who were seasonal farmworkers in Oregon, Galvez grew up in the farmworker community.
Through Virginia Garcia, which primarily serves the Latino community, Galvez treats farmworkers in a mobile clinic that travels to farmworker labor camps across the state every year.
She said without additional regulations, Oregon's more than 160,000 farmworkers would be at a high risk of being infected by the coronavirus. Existing requirements for space per person in housing and the number of sanitation facilities fall short of public health officials' guidelines, she said.
"It's a step in the right direction," Galvez said about OSHA's new rules. "I'm pleased to see that these are not just suggestions or guidelines but rules. Keeping farmworkers safe and healthy is going to be a long process that's going to require a lot of collaboration and partnership, and so, therefore, we made progress, but there's a lot of work to be done."
She said the lack of additional protections put health care workers tasked with treating people with COVID-19 at risk.
"We are all working hard to take care of patients who are sick and to screen patients, but if we were to have an outbreak on a farm, then we would have the potential to see a surge that we were so concerned about a few weeks ago," Galvez said.
Substantial numbers of farmworkers use temporary agricultural labor visas and are unable to receive adequate health care during harvest season even without coronavirus concerns, she said.
"Many of them are undocumented, therefore they do not qualify for health care," Galvez said.
Growers in Washington County hire migrant workers at one of the highest rates in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
According to the USDA, in 2017, the county was the fifth-largest producer of fruit, tree nuts and berries, which often require manual labor to harvest.
Media reports have for weeks highlighted how COVID-19 has affected people of color at a disproportionate rate.
Washington County officials recently released data showing the extent of that disproportionality. Nearly 50% of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county identify as Hispanic while the group only makes up 16.5% of the overall population.
In an April 29 viritual news conference to discuss the disproportionality, county officials said they have not collected data showing what percentage of people who have tested positive are seasonal or migrant farmworkers.
"We definitely know that they're in positions that they aren't able to stay home and stay safe, that they're in positions where physical distancing can sometimes be more difficult," said Marni Kuyl, director of Washington County Health and Human Services.
In a statement following OSHA's announcement of the new rules, the Oregon Farm Bureau raised concerns about whether farmers and ranchers could implement the new rules by the deadline.
"Farm and ranch families care deeply about the health and well-being of their employees, but the new OR-OSHA rules give only 11 days' notice to make significant changes to farm infrastructure and practices," read the statement. "There are considerable supply chain issues that make complying with these rules impossible. The rules also reduce the amount of available housing for farm employees, including in rural areas where there are no viable alternative lodging options available. Oregon should be creating more opportunities for shelter and housing at this time, not less."
The Farm Bureau added that years of lower prices for products already have placed producers under "tremendous economic pressure."
Aaron Corvin, an OSHA spokesman, said the agency will be using its customary approach to enforcement of the new rules, including unannounced inspections, both in response to complaints and at its own initiative.