SALEM — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has issued an executive order extending COVID-19 protections for migrant and seasonal farmworkers living in employer-provided housing through April 30.
The order mirrors part of a temporary rule adopted by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration in June, bolstering sanitation and social distancing requirements in agricultural labor camps while outlining measures for quarantining sick workers.
Brown signed the executive order on Oct. 23, one day before the Oregon OSHA rule was set to expire.
“There is no doubt that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on historically under-served and marginalized communities, including migrant and seasonal farmworkers,” Brown said. “As workers continue critical farm labor activities through the off-season, it is important that these much-needed protections remain in place.”
Among the provisions outlined in the order, farms must:
• Provide one toilet facility for every 10 occupants in housing units, or fraction thereof.
• Clean portable toilets at least three times per day, and plumbed toilets shared by workers at least twice daily.
• Keep beds at least 6 feet apart for unrelated workers, or separated by an impermeable barrier such as Plexiglass or heavy plastic sheeting. Unrelated workers cannot share bunk beds.
• Appoint one or more “social distancing officers.”
• Sanitize high-contact surfaces at least twice per day.
• Isolate workers if they test positive for COVID-19, with their own separate facilities.
The regulations apply only to registered labor camps. It does not cover community-based housing units, hotels or motels. Brown’s order also adds possible criminal penalties, making violations a Class C misdemeanor.
Samantha Bayer, policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the group was blindsided by the order, only learning about it less than 24 hours before it was announced.
In a statement, the bureau criticized Brown for subverting the public process while unfairly targeting farms. Of the 11,617 workplace complaints Oregon OSHA has received about COVID-19, the agency has cited 13 farming operations for a total of 33 violations.
Bayer said there have not been any identified workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 in agricultural housing since the pandemic began, even before the Oregon OSHA rule was adopted.
“We believe there is a way forward here to protect people from COVID-19 without displacing them,” Bayer said. “Because we’ve been shut out of the conversation, (our farmers) are just kind of left to take what the state gives them.”
Representatives for Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN, Oregon’s largest Latino and farm labor union, released a statement in support of Brown’s executive order.
”The governor did the right thing, by extending housing temporary rules,” said Reyna Lopez, PCUN executive director. “The pandemic isn’t over, and it would be a grave mistake to allow these minimal protections to go away for the thousands of agricultural workers that reside in Oregon and work in the essential food supply chain all year-round.”
However, PCUN argued the order does not go far enough to keep workers safe.
While Brown extended temporary rules for labor housing units, other protections for field sanitation and transportation were allowed to expire. Specifically, Oregon OSHA had required farms provide one portable toilet and hand-washing station for every 10 workers during the peak harvest season. The ratio now drops back to one for every 20 workers.
Lopez said she is also concerned about the hundreds of workers staying in hotels and motels who are not covered by the rule.
“Without additional protections, workers are vulnerable due to overcrowding and the misuse of rooms,” she said.
Oregon has an estimated farmworker population of 87,000, according to an Oregon State University study, of whom 29,000 are migrant farmworkers and 59,000 are seasonal. Lopez said PCUN is continuing to push for increased workplace testing for COVID-19, better ventilation systems in agricultural labor camps and — critically — increased OSHA inspections to ensure compliance at farms.
“Without an increase in inspections, we will continue to see low numbers of complaints from the agricultural sector,” Lopez said. “Most agricultural workers don’t believe agencies are doing enough. When they complain it often results in retaliation from employers. Once that happens, workers no longer have a desire to complain.”
Bayer, with the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the organization is working to help farms get into compliance with the governor’s order immediately, while identifying sources of funding to cover increased costs.
“Once the dust settles, we’ll look at what the legality of this is,” Bayer said.
To help ease some of the financial burden, Oregon created the Food Security and Farmworker Safety Program allocating $16 million in federal COVID-19 relief to help pay for things like buying masks, modifying labor camps and buying or renting additional portable toilets.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture announced the program’s deadline was recently extended through Nov. 6 following the governor’s executive order. The initial limit of $20,000 per producer for eligible expenses has also been waived.
For more information or to submit an application, visit www.oregon.gov/oweb/fsfs.