Brown Extends COVID Requirements For Ag Workers, OFB Dismayed

On Friday, Governor Kate Brown extended her Executive Order focused on protecting agricultural workers from coronavirus during the off season. Brown said Executive Order 20-58, issued earlier this year, addresses physical distancing, sanitation, and isolation requirements in order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among the state’s farm workers and surrounding communities.

“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 underserved and marginalized communities, including migrant and seasonal farmworkers. 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 Executive Order is in effect through April 30th.

The Oregon Farm Bureau said Friday it was dismayed by the Governor’s decision to release a last-minute Executive Order extending the rules for employer-provided agricultural housing and shocked that the Governor would add criminal penalties to the enforcement of these rules. 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. OFB noted there has not been an identified “outbreak” of COVID-19 in agricultural housing since the beginning of the pandemic, even before the temporary rules were adopted. 

OR-OSHA’s data shows that of the 11,617 complaints made to the agency, and subsequent violations found, agriculture represented 33. Almost all of these cases, according to OFB, were minor, such as not having enough posters displayed. 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.

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. Farmworker advocates acknowledge that community-based and off-site housing doesn’t require social distancing, yet this housing has not been the subject of increased regulation, scrutiny, or criminal penalties. OFB agrees with the need to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in housing, but believes there is a way to protect employees without displacing them.

The Governor’s staff informed agricultural leaders of the Executive Order extension roughly 24 hours before it was to be issued and would not share the text of the order with just hours to go before implementation. The use of an 11th hour Executive Order, the OFB said, 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.  

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 OR-OSHA how best to protect farmworkers 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.

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