With COVID-19 guidance changing daily, agricultural employers have many challenges ahead. Below are several important agriculture-related laws and recommendations to keep in mind.
On March 19, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 to assist employers in providing a safe and healthy workplace. Below is a summary of guidance relevant to agricultural employers:
• Promote frequent and thorough handwashing. If soap and running water are not available, provide alcohol-based hand rubs containing at least 60% alcohol.
• Display handwashing signs in restrooms and portable washing stations.
• Encourage workers to stay home if they are sick. Recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance permits employers to require employees with symptoms to stay home.
• Encourage respiratory etiquette, including covering coughs and sneezes (preferably with the elbow), and avoiding touching eyes, nose, and mouth.
• Employers must establish policies to increase social distance in the workplace. Failure to establish these policies can be a basis for shutting down operations. Employers should consider staggering work shifts and increasing physical space between employees during meals, rest and restroom breaks.
• Discourage workers from sharing tools and equipment, when possible.
• Educate workers about how they can reduce the spread of COVID-19.
• Routinely clean and disinfect surfaces, equipment and machinery in the workplace. Employers should consult information on Environmental Protection Agency approved disinfectant labels, which are expected to be effective against COVID-19. For more information, see CDC Guidance on how to clean and disinfect.
• Increase ventilation and circulation of outdoor air in enclosed workspaces.
• EEOC guidance clarifies employers are right to ask employees who call in sick if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat). Although measuring an employee’s body temperature is usually prohibited, employers may do so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Develop and communicate policies regarding employees who have been exposed to COVID-19.
Last month, Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown issued Executive Order 20-12, which requires businesses where work-from-home options are not available, to establish, implement, and enforce social distancing policies consistent with guidance from the Oregon Health Authority. These policies must address how businesses will maintain social distancing protocol for business-critical visitors, for example, vendors or inspectors. Failure to follow these requirements can lead to a shutdown.
Under Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s Executive Order 20-25, all non-essential businesses must cease operations that cannot be performed remotely. Many workers in the food and agriculture sector are classified as essential under this order, including farmworkers and food manufacturer employees. Washington businesses must establish and implement social distancing and sanitation measures following U.S. Department of Labor’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 and the Washington State Department of Health. WSDH issued guidance for handling sick employees with COVID-19 and requires employers create a series of policies including social distancing, hygiene education posters, and employee access to soap, water, and/or disinfectant gel with at least 60% alcohol. Agricultural employers overseeing areas and equipment shared by multiple employees should draft policies tailored to their specific work circumstances.
On March 18, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provides paid leave for employees unable to work due to closure of schools and child-care facilities (Paid Child Care Leave) and temporary paid sick leave for COVID-19 related absences (Paid Sick Leave). Both provisions apply to employers with fewer than 500 employees. All employees may take Paid Sick Leave regardless of how long they have worked for the employer.
Paid Child Care Leave may be less common for agricultural employers, as employees are only eligible if they have worked for the prior 30 or more calendar days. However, any leave employers pay under this law is 100% reimbursable through a federal tax credit. Both provisions became effective April 1.