What does COVID-19 mean for agriculture?

Oregon joins a number of other states facing critical conversations about the agriculture industry and risk of novel coronavirus exposure to farmworkers. Often those of us working in safety and health get used to expecting the slow adoption of standards, guidelines and practices. The risk of infection reminds us that time is of essence, especially with growing seasons and Oregon’s largest demand for farmworkers nearly here.

Oregon has deemed agriculture as an essential industry, and important food provider for all of us. Nonetheless, even while by being designated essential, the State of Oregon still requires workforce provisions to protect against the spread of the virus. All businesses that continue to operate are required to follow physical distancing policies consistent with guidance from the Oregon Health Authority. Examples of these guidelines, and shared with other essential industries, include maintaining six feet between people, requirements to wash and sanitize hands after contact with any surface, practicing precautions such as avoiding touching face (except after washing), avoiding groups, and avoiding contact with those who are sick.

Oregon Health Authority, in collaboration with many groups, individuals and organizations, is developing and collating guidance for agricultural employers. We will link any new resources to this blog as available. This is a difficult time for everyone, and it is critical that all parties involved – statewide agencies with rules and resources, employers, worker advocates, and workers collaborate to address difficult challenges as effectively and quickly as possible. Our different perspectives and opinions on acceptable work and housing conditions, often influenced by economic considerations, can make conversations challenging. Concerns about sharing health status and potential ramifications of illness are further complicated by worries regarding documentation status. Given fears about COVID-19, it is important that we share science-based, meaningful information in languages and forms that all people can access and understand as we continue to require safe and fair work.

Worker advocates have raised concern regarding potential exposure to the cornoavirus of those working on farms, within food-related warehouses and packing areas, and living in labor or group housing. Those familiar with this topic remind us that sanitation issues have previously been raised by employee advocates even before coronoavirus infection concerns: asserting current number of required toilets and hand-washing facilities and their proximity to workers was insufficient. The coronavirus heightens this concern, and brings even greater immediacy to the issue. (See Request for Public CommentPetition to Amend 437-004-1100 Relating to Field Sanitation and Related to Work and 437-004-1120 Relating to Agricultural Labor Housing and Related Facilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.) Additionally, topics that are of of particular concern now and that challenge these newer physical distancing requirements are:

  • Transportation to fields for work which commonly includes carpooling, vans and buses.
  • Lack of hand washing opportunities specific to the advising of frequent hand washing (and after touching of surfaces).
  • Breaking the tradition of enjoying mealtimes and break times in social groups.
  • Lack of ability to segregate or quarantine ill or exposed individuals while living in labor housing.
  • Lack of sick leave for many workers in this industry may encourage workers to continue to report to work even if experiencing illness. While in some industries workers can use sick or administrative leave, and even accrue hazard duty pay during this time of COVID-19, information on this for farm workers is limited or not (yet) always widely shared or offered.

California recently created specific written recommended practices for agriculture, such as having workers work alternate rows and with smaller crews, and developing checklists including plans for checking in with workers about symptoms upon arrival at work. However, currently it appears most of these practices are voluntary and may not be instigated by employers in California. Washington is in the process of adopting a similar checklist. Proper practice during COVID-19 times in temporary or labor housing includes: educating employees and occupants; increase distance between people, encourage reporting of illness and symptoms, conduct daily health checks, provide guidance on protective measures if symptoms or illness develop, separate sick occupants from those who are healthy, incorporate physical distancing into all aspects of work, and discourage visitations in shared housing.

At this moment it is imperative to practice physical distancing and other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 throughout all our communities.  And while we await any additional recommended practices for agriculture here in Oregon, here are resources and initiatives that we hope those with control over workplaces, including those within the agriculture industry, will pay attention to, adopt, or inquire about. Additional pertinent resources will be added as they are released.

GUIDANCE ON WORK PRACTICES IN AGRICULTURE

Interim Guidance from Oregon OSHA Relevant to COVID-19 and all workplaces.
Keep in mind that Oregon OSHA has stated, “Oregon OSHA will address employee inquiries and complaints, and provide advice to employers related to any potential violation of existing Oregon OSHA rules or directives issued by Gov. Kate Brown if they involve potential workplace exposure.​​​” How to file a workplace complaint with Oregon OSHA (English and Spanish).

Temporary Administrative Rule Addressing the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency in Labor Housing and Agricultural Employment from Oregon OSHA effective 5/11/20. (updated 5/14/20)

Safety and Health Guidance from CAL OSHA: COVID-19 Infection Prevention for Agricultural Employers and Employees (April 7, 2020)
This document addresses Employee Training, Procedures to Help Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace, Procedures to Increase Physical Distancing, Good Sanitation Practices, and Additional Resources.

Oregon Farm Bureau Federation Interim Guidance for Agricultural Employers for COVID-19 (April 9, 2020)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Prevention in Agriculture and Related Industries – English and Spanish from WA Dept of Labor and Industries.

Food Processing-Warehouse Coronavirus (COVID-19) Fact Sheet – English and Spanish from WA Dept Labor & Industries.

Recommendations for Temporary Worker Housing.
Advice from Washington: Recommendations during a COVID-19 Outbreak: Temporary Worker Housing (updated 3/23/20)

WAC 296-307-16102 Additional requirements to protect occupants in temporary worker housing from 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) exposure (updated 5/14/20)

RELATED RESOURCES FOR AGRICULTURE EMPLOYERS AND EMPLOYEES

Oregon Department of Agriculture COVID-19 Information:
Scroll down under “Resources” to accordion bullet for Employers, Farm Workers, Employees addressing CARES Act, Small Biz paycheck protection, unemployment benefits and more.

Information on COVID-19 from Oregon Health Authority
This is the “go to” for Oregon currently on COVID-19,  including information on testing (various languages). Guidance for specific occupations has been developed, and when guidance for agriculture is added we will add the direct link here.

Small Farms, Local Food, and COVID-19: What do you need to know. Fact sheet prepared by Oregon State University Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems.

 

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