Study Says State Failed Farmworkers During Covid; OSHA denies findings – Oregon Capital Chronicle
The past two years have been tough for everyone, but some 87,000 Oregon farmworkers have faced some of the worst hardships, with state officials sometimes failing to protect them, according to a report released Tuesday.
the Covid-19 study on agricultural workers involved in-depth interviews with 48 farm workers from 11 counties across the state, from Marion to Malheur to Jackson counties. Researchers found that while enduring grueling labor to get food onto Oregon’s tables, farmworkers were often not provided with masks to protect them from Covid. The report says they were often not properly informed in their native language about Covid or where to get vaccinated, had no break areas and had to eat in their vehicles.
Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors showed up at workplaces but turned a blind eye to the illegal conditions, the report said.
“Workers know that Oregon OSHA is supposed to enforce the rules, but that rarely happens,” the report said. “Not all agriculture and food industry employers practice or enforce masking and distancing, even though it is mandated by law and workers prefer it.”
An OSHA spokesperson denied in an email that the agency had been lax in enforcing the rules, saying it used to protect farmworkers.
By some estimates, Oregon has the fifth largest population of agricultural workers in the nation, second only to Washington State. California is the first.
The report, which was funded by the Meyer Memorial Trust in Portland, comes two months after emotional hearings in the legislative session on a farmworker overtime bill. Despite strong opposition from the agricultural industry, This happened along partisan lines, and is awaiting Governor Kate Brown’s signature. The bill will phase in a weekly overtime pay of 40 hours from next year.
The interviews with the farmworkers, ages 25 to 65, were conducted between February 2021 and July 2021, including during the summer heat dome when one farmworker died, according to the report.
Workers know that Oregon OSHA is supposed to enforce the rules, but that rarely happens.
– Covid-19 study on agricultural workers
Ron Mize, professor of ethnic studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University, worked on the study with researchers from Portland State University and the University of Oregon. Mize said workers knew OSHA was supposed to enforce the rules and were confused when that wasn’t the case.
“They really struggled with OSHA,” Mize told the Capital Chronicle. “They never really felt like they had clear advice on the rules and the very few times they saw inspectors they were often confused because (the inspectors) said he didn’t there was nothing wrong and they felt close to each other and there were a lot of social distancing issues that they couldn’t control.
Agency officials said that was not the case.
“It’s really important to understand that Oregon OSHA was one of the few states in the country to pass specific Covid-19 rules to reduce workplace hazards, and that includes a specific rule addressing hazards in agricultural labor housing,” according to an email from Aaron Corvin, a spokesperson for OSHA. “We have expanded and updated these protections over time and as the pandemic and public health guidelines have evolved. They have included provisions for face coverings, physical distancing and regular sanitation.
He added: “We regularly engage with stakeholders and produce and disseminate educational resources and communications for vulnerable workers in multiple languages, including in high-risk industries. Our rule-making processes — including for our heat and wildfire regulatory projects — have included worker listening sessions.
He said OSHA has bilingual staff and uses language services to talk to workers.
“Oregon OSHA has a long-standing focus on serving agricultural worker and other vulnerable populations as part of our safety-focused programs,” Corvin wrote.
Data provided to the Capital Chronicle showed that OSHA issued 22 Covid-related citations to agricultural businesses between March 2020 and March 2023. The agency concluded that none of the violations were deliberate, a finding that may lead to thousands of dollars in fines.
The highest fine for a farming business was $600 at Dimmick Farms in Merlin for failing to follow physical distancing rules, among other things. Some agricultural companies cited by OSHA have not been fined.
“They don’t follow the rules”
Many farmworkers told researchers their employers were unaware of the Covid rules.
“They’re not following the rules, 6 feet apart as they should be,” said a 49-year-old farmhand in the North Shore and Lower Willamette Valley. “They don’t give us masks. They gave us a meeting about wearing a mask and distancing from others. But work sometimes requires us to be close. Sometimes they bring us closer when we cut the cabbage. They don’t care if you get sick or infected.
She said farm workers endure filthy conditions and lack sanitation.
“Sometimes we don’t have paper or sanitizer…even the bathroom is dirty,” she said. “We have to go to the office to ask for a roll of paper. They (Oregon OSHA) came but did nothing.
Another farmhand, 33, who works in the nursery, added:
“One day, we were working on the side of the road. We were planting trees. Like 50 of us. Someone called the agency handling it. They (Oregon OSHA) arrived and saw a lot of people without masks. And they themselves said that since it was outside if they didn’t have the masks, there was no problem. Then they just checked the toilets and counted the number of toilets and saw that the number of people in the toilets was correct.
The report says most farm workers were willing to get vaccinated and many did. But he blames state agencies for not following up with support. A third of those surveyed spoke indigenous languages such as Mam from Guatemala or Zapotec from Mexico. The others spoke Spanish.
Oregon OSHA has a long-standing focus on serving agricultural worker populations and other vulnerable workers through our safety-focused programs.
– Aaron Corvin, OSHA spokesperson
“Even when information about particular services or programs was available in their languages, there was no follow-up by agencies or service providers,” the report said. “It is not enough to notify people in Mam or Zapotec, for example, where farm workers can get vaccinated or where they can get food aid. Additional steps require the availability of service navigators who can meet or consult them directly and work with them in their own language.
Covid outbreaks hit agricultural workplaces, but employers weren’t transparent about infections, the report said.
“In some cases, farmworkers described these outbreaks as not being reported to employees or not being asked to return to work,” the report said. “Some who had family members with underlying medical conditions were reluctant to go to work amid major outbreaks. Employers have not provided consistent information on what to do if you are sick, if you have been exposed, and whether or not you will be paid if you are quarantined, whether you are sick yourself or no.
The Oregon Health Authority, which oversaw the state’s Covid vaccination campaign, and the state Department of Social Services, which provides medical, food and other assistance to legal residents, did not respond. to requests from the Capital Chronicle to comment on the report’s findings.
DHS oversees the food stamp program, which has been a key resource for many farmworkers, the report said. But many workers did not seek state assistance, the report said.
“Worried about being labeled a ‘public charge,’ some have stopped applying for state and federally funded food assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to which they were entitled,” indicates the report. “Many have never recovered from the loss of wages and working hours and have continued to struggle to pay their bills a year into the pandemic.”
The report lists several recommendations, quoting some from farm workers themselves. They said the state should “put inspectors on the farms so that they regularly monitor all operations.”
Researchers said farm workers need culturally appropriate mental health support, better safety net services and better access to legal advice on everything from employment and housing to immigration and obtaining a driver’s license. The researchers also called on the state to enforce existing anti-retaliation and workplace protections and conduct random inspections.