Oregon cherry harvest

Workers harvest Royal Ann cherries near Dufur, Ore. New Oregon OSHA rules will be expensive to meet, farmers say.

PORTLAND — Oregon OSHA is considering a petition that would require farms to increase field sanitation and housing protections for agricultural workers in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Oregon Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal help to low-income communities, and Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, which advocates for migrant and seasonal farmworkers, filed the petition March 20. 

The petition specifically asks Oregon OSHA — the state's Occupational Health and Safety Administration — to amend administrative rules related to the Field Sanitation and Agricultural Labor Housing programs, calling for emergency measures to prevent spreading coronavirus among labor camps.

Farm groups, however, argue they are already taking worker health seriously, and some improvements recommended in the petition would be unrealistically expensive and impractical.

Proposed actions include adding more portable toilets and handwashing stations in fields where workers are picking crops. The current standard is for farms to provide one station for every 20 employees. Petitioners want to see one station for every five employees.

Farms should also assign no more than two unrelated people per cabin in labor housing, the petition states, while assuring that each camp has at least one washing machine and dryer per 12 individuals.

The 6-page petition is signed by Nargess Shadbeh, director of the Oregon Law Center's Farmworker Program; Julie Samples, a managing attorney in the Farmworker Program; and Eva Galvez, a family physician with the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, which operates five primary care clinics in the Willamette Valley.

"We, like you, are concerned about the current gaps in addressing the protection of farmworkers," they write to state regulators. "There are approximately 160,000 farmworkers and their families in Oregon, and they work and reside in practically every county in the state."

While Oregon OSHA says it has not yet decided whether it will pursue any changes to rules, the agency is taking public comments on the petition through April 13.

A coalition of industry groups led by the Oregon Farm Bureau is drafting joint comments expressing their opposition to certain parts of the petition.

Samantha Bayer, a public policy attorney for the Farm Bureau, said members are worried about their ability to meet additional criteria on top of Gov. Kate Brown's executive order implementing social distancing policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though agriculture is identified as an essential business, farms are still subject to work space restrictions and could be shut down by the state if they do not comply. Adding more onerous regulations outlined in the petition could threaten farms at a time when food production is more important than ever, Bayer said.

"A lot of these are just not economically feasible," she said. "If farms can't comply, they face the risk of having to close. When farms close, that's a direct threat to our security."

For example, the average farm would likely have to purchase 3-5 new portable toilets and handwashing stations, which begin retailing about $4,000 each. That does not include the cost of installation, cleaning, and stocking each station with soap and toilet paper.

"Most people do not have the cash flow to do that right now," Bayer said.

About two-thirds of Oregon's agricultural labor camps are in Hood River and Wasco counties in the Columbia River Gorge, where farmers produce most of the state's labor-intensive pears and cherries.

Mike Doke, executive director of the Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers, said farms have already submitted their contracts for H-2A seasonal workers. It is too late to build additional housing, Doke said, meaning they would have to cut back on the number of workers they can hire.

"That means a lot of crop goes unharvested," he said.

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said members are "full steam ahead" in training their crews to report health or safety issues.

The Farm Bureau recently updated and distributed its employer guidance for COVID-19, with information about how to keep workers safe.

"First and foremost, the health and safety of employees and their families are of the utmost importance to our organizations and our members," Stone said. "As such, we have each made it a priority to proactively distribute guidance and information to our members that includes the best available information on maintaining healthy workplaces during COVID-19."

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