SALEM — A portion of Oregon’s federal COVID-19 relief funds may go toward reimbursing farms to comply with more stringent worker protections heading into the busy summer harvest season.
Oregon OSHA, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, issued a temporary rule April 29 covering three main areas — field sanitation, labor housing and transportation.
Among the provisions, farms must provide roughly double the number of portable toilets and handwashing stations in fields and orchards. Beds must also be spaced 6 feet apart in labor camps or separated by an impermeable barrier, such as Plexiglass or heavy plastic sheets, to maintain social distancing.
The regulations were originally scheduled to take effect May 11, but Oregon OSHA delayed enforcement until June 1.
As farms scramble to buy bathroom trailers and retrofit housing units, the Legislature’s joint emergency board met May 15 to discuss how the state will spend more than $1.3 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.
Part of the fund, $415 million, was set aside for local governments and tribes. Of that, $200 million will go to cities, counties and tribes to pay for personal protective equipment, contact tracing, testing capacity and farm sanitation and housing.
Nikki Fisher, press secretary for Gov. Kate Brown, said the governor “continues to believe it is vital to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our agricultural industry and workforce.”
She said the office is evaluating further policy and funding proposals to address stabilizing and securing food sources, while still protecting workers.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, who serves on the emergency board, said she remains concerned about how the money will be distributed.
Drazan, whose district is the largest in the Portland metro area and includes all of rural Clackamas County, said farms are being forced to compete for aid with other public health priorities rather than direct appropriations, putting them in a difficult position.
The funding does not cover Multnomah and Washington counties, which received money separately from the CARES Act due to their larger populations.
Finally, Drazan took issue with the entire rule-making process by Oregon OSHA, saying regulations were crafted by outside groups rather than medical experts.
“This is not how all the other sectors (of the economy) have been treated in terms of guidance,” Drazan said. “I think that OSHA has such a great reputation for working collaboratively for safety with our growers, but in this case the process sounds like it was a traditional agency-drive, petitioner-driven emergency rule that went into effect.”
On March 20, the Oregon Law Center and Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center sent a letter to Oregon OSHA seeking greater protections for agricultural workers. The agency treated the letter as a petition, and received more than 120 public comments. The Oregon Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations largely opposed the rule.
The final rule contains numerous provisions, including:
• Farms must provide one portable toilet and handwashing station for every 10 workers in the field. The previous standard was one for every 20 workers.
• Toilets and handwashing stations must be cleaned and sanitized three times per day.
• Employers must appoint one or more “social distancing officers” to ensure at least 6 feet of separation during work.
• Beds must be separated by 6 feet or an impermeable barrier inside labor camps. Unrelated workers cannot share a bunk bed.
• Workers traveling together in vehicles must wear masks and stay at least 3 feet apart inside vehicles.
By the time enforcement begins, farmers in the Columbia River Gorge expect to begin harvesting cherries. More than two-thirds of all registered labor camps in Oregon are in Wasco and Hood River counties, which grow the majority of the state’s labor-intensive tree fruit.
Jeff Heater, of Heater Orchards in The Dalles, Ore., farms about 80 acres of cherries. He has already lined up two more bathroom trailers for his orchard. Combined with the additional cleaning costs, he expects it will run about $500 per week for three weeks.
Heater, who also works as a crop consultant for Western Ag Improvement, considers himself lucky because he does not have a labor camp on his farm. Other growers, he said, are looking to rent motel rooms for their displaced workers or make costly renovations to their cabins.
A typical cherry grower in The Dalles might bring in about 100 seasonal pickers, Heater said. More than half of those are single men, housed traditionally two to four to a cabin.
“Now, they’ll pretty much have to cut those in half,” he said. “Some of those guys are having to put up partitions between beds. A lot of times, they’re having to modify their cooking and shower facilities.”
Reimbursement from the state will help, Heater said, though he added that relying on the state is “usually a futile experience.”
Meanwhile, agricultural equipment manufacturers are ramping up production to meet the surging demand for additional bathroom and handwashing trailers.
Connie Lindsay, a spokeswoman for GK Machine Inc. in Donald, Ore., said they have sold more than 50 trailers over the last three weeks, a time of year when they might typically sell a dozen. Each unit costs $4,000-$5,000.
GK Machine has adjusted operations to create a single production line with seven employees building enough trailers daily to keep 8-10 on hand. So far, Lindsay said the company is keeping up with demand.
“I’ve been here for over five years. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this,” she said. “We are projecting sales to be steady through mid-summer, probably until July 1.”