Order maintains ag-housing stipulations
Advocates of Oregon farmers and those of agriculture workers expressed differing views of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's Executive Order 20-58, which maintains current temporary farm-worker housing requirements through April 30.
Temporary rules established by Oregon's Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) earlier this year to help combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic were set to expire on Oct. 24. Those rules included requirements for employer-provided housing that ensured safe distancing, sanitation and isolation.
On Oct. 23 Brown issued an order to extend those COVID-19 protections for agricultural workers regarding employer-provided housing.
"Agricultural workers have continued to go to work during this pandemic so that Oregon families can put food on the table," Brown said. "There is no doubt that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on historically under-served and marginalized communities, including migrant and seasonal farm workers. As workers continue critical farm labor activities through the off-season, it is important that these much-needed protections remain in place."
The Governor's Office said the order's requirements mirror those established by OHSA, and it also coincides with the state's March 8 declared state of emergency which authorizes certain immediate response actions.
Oregon Farm Bureau issued a statement disputing the latter, while Oregon's union for farm workers and Latinx working families, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), supported the order but felt that it did not go far enough.
A press release issued by OFB spokeswoman Anne Marie Moss said the bureau was "dismayed" at the order, imparting that it is subversive and misguided.
"Adoption of the original temporary COVID-19 rules for agriculture allowed no meaningful public input and resulted from an activist petition, not from any public health or scientific experts. Using an executive order to extend these rules subverts the public process yet again," the OFB statement read.
The statement further stated that employer provided housing in agriculture has not posed safety risks or been the source of outbreaks, and that stricter requirements rendered to combat the pandemic should be focused elsewhere.
"The Oregon Health Authority has made it clear that social gatherings off-site are the major driver of continued spread of COVID-19, not on-farm employment and housing," OFB maintains. "Outbreaks are actively occurring off-site in community-based and other housing. Because of bed-spacing, prohibition of bunk beds, and other technical requirements, the temporary rules reduced the amount of safe on-farm housing and pushed employees out into unregulated environments."
PCUN Executive Director Reyna Lopez said that even though agricultural activity slows down during the late fall and winter months, labor demands do not stop and neither will the dangers of this pandemic.
PCUN maintains that the executive order will assist in providing some level of protection from COVID-19 to those residing in employer-provided agricultural labor housing, but it does not go far enough since it allowed the OHSA field sanitation and transportation protections to expire.
Lopez noted that PCUN supports the governor's executive order since without it there would be no regulations covering social distancing requirements. That would mean up to four people sleeping in rooms as small as 160 square feet on bunk beds or three to four people in a room of 200 square feet.
"The Governor did the right thing, by extending housing temporary rules, this 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 all year around, and work in the essential food supply chain all year around," Lopez said.
"We do not like that the ratio of toilets and sinks in the fields where hand harvest workers work will once again drop to 1:20 persons instead of at least 1:10 as it has been under the temporary (OHSA) rules," Lopez added.
She said excluding that from the executive order leaves workers vulnerable. Moreover, there has been little attention directed at other housing factors, such as air quality as few have central heating and cooling systems.
"Instead of blaming cultural practices as the cause of the spread, more attention must be given to overcrowding and inadequate opportunity for social distancing," Lopez said. "PCUN is also participating in the rule making regarding the (pandemic), and we plan on being very vocal about the needs of workers from the field to processing plants.
"Collectively as Oregonians, we're not doing enough to keep workers in the essential food supply chain safe -- we also must rethink testing strategies and develop a comprehensive plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 amongst workers."
OFB officials said they agree that steps need to be taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but this order is not way to do it. They also felt it was issued hastily, affording little to no time for input from the agriculture community.
"The use of an 11th-hour Executive Order guarantees that no official public comment will be heard, no stakeholder perspectives will be taken into account, and it also subverts the requirements of the Oregon Administrative Procedures Act," the OFB statement read. "Oregon's farm families and the organizations that represent them have been working to make a positive difference in the fight against COVID-19 since March, including proactively discussing with Oregon OSHA how best to protect farm workers during this crisis. The state's unfounded focus on agriculture hurts both farmers and their employees, while also diverting resources away from areas where COVID-19 spread is actually occurring."
As much of the work moves indoors during the cold-weather months, PCUN is pushing for targeted and frequent workplace testing, increased ventilation systems, temperature checking, and increasing inspections at places of employment across the state.
PCUN leaders stress that the executive order is not a new rule for the industry; the measures have been in place for months. But they feel agencies responsible for inspections and enforcement have been ineffective.
"Without an increase in inspections, we will continue to see low numbers of complaints from the agricultural sectors; most agricultural workers don't believe agencies are doing enough, when they complain it often results in retaliation from employers," Lopez said. "Once that happens, workers no longer have a desire to complain."
She added that under-reported contraction and transmission of COVID-19 among agricultural workers does not mean that there are no issues.
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