The federal government deemed farmworkers essential. Advocates say the workers remain vulnerable to conditions. Pictured: A farmworker tends to a field in Vale. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
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NYSSA – The state is stepping up efforts to protect farmworkers from COVID-19. Starting May 11, farmers will have to comply with temporary rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Oregon’s workplace safety agency.
Advocates say the rules are necessary to protect workers who are essential yet uniquely vulnerable. But some farmers are concerned that the guidelines will cripple their already weakened operations.
The new guidelines issued April 28 address field sanitation, employer-provided housing and transportation.
The rule will remain in effect through Oct. 28, according to OSHA. Under the new guidelines, employers must appoint a social distancing officer to ensure that workers are staying apart during work and break times.
The same applies for employer-provided housing and transportation. Workers must be seated three feet apart in employer-provided vehicles and facial coverings are required for all passengers.
Starting June 1, employers must increase the availability of toilet and handwashing facilities in the field. Farmers who provide housing must also ensure proper separation between beds.
The Oregon Farm Bureau said in a statement that certain rules will require changes that aren’t possible for farm and ranch families due to supply chain issues.
“The rules also reduce the amount of available housing for farm employees, including in rural areas where there are no viable alternative lodging options available,” the statement read.
Charlotte Froerer, co-owner at Froerer Farms in Nyssa, said the timeframe for implementing the guidelines is unrealistic.
“I think the [guidelines] require a timeline that’s impossible to implement,” Froerer said. Her family’s operation likely won’t be able to meet the new housing guidelines requiring six feet of separation or a barrier between beds and banning bunk beds for workers who are not related, she said.
The farm brings in a couple dozen workers on H-2A visas every year.
“We’re probably going to have to send about half of our workforce back because we can’t meet the housing regulations,” Froerer said.
The farm has been intentional about emphasizing social distancing during safety meetings, she said.
Stuart Reitz, director of the Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station, said the station outside of Ontario has also ramped up awareness of social distancing.
“When you’re out in the field it’s easy to be working and all of a sudden you look up and you’re standing next to somebody, so it’s about keeping people aware,” Reitz said.
With only about a half dozen workers at the experiment station, it’s been easier to implement measures such as ensuring that people ride two to a vehicle, and sanitize the interior with hand wipes, Reitz added.
“I think literally everybody has concerns,” Reitz said. Field work, he added, is not in full swing yet. In a month or so, dozens of workers at one time will populate fields in the county.
Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, advocates say.
“Many of these families don’t have medical insurance and they’re concerned about getting sick and not being able to afford the proper health care,” said Zaira Sanchez, a coordinator at the Umatilla-based nonprofit Raices.
The grassroots organization launched a relief fund for farmworkers affected by COVID-19. The fund is aimed at undocumented workers who have no access to unemployment or the governement stimulus checks, even if they pay taxes.
Latinos have been disproportionately hit by the virus across Oregon. While they make up about 13% of the population, recent data indicates that Latinos account for just over a quarter of positive COVID-19 cases.
Agriculture-dependent areas in the state have been particularly hit. In Marion County, more than half of the residents who recently tested positive for COVID-19 live in the agriculturally-dependent city of Woodburn where half the population is Latino, according to the Salem Reporter.
Farmworkers pick asparagus in a Nyssa field. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
The community faces other challenges.
“Our communities are very word-of-mouth so I think a lot of misinformation gets spread,” Sanchez said.
The Oregon Health Authority launched a Spanish-language Facebook page last month to help keep the community informed.
But implementing changes in Oregon is only one part of the equation, Sanchez added.
“We’re a border state. We have a lot of people working in agriculture that maybe live in Oregon but work in Idaho or work in Washington, and these rules change in each state,” she said.
Idaho hasn’t implemented specific guidelines to protect farmworkers and the state’s restrictions have been more lax than Oregon’s. Some advocacy groups are collecting masks and distributing them to farmworkers, the Idaho Statesman reported. In Washington, a Tyson Fresh Meats plant has seen hundreds of workers get sick with the virus.
Despite the risks, farmwork remains one of the most stable jobs in the area, said Laura De la Fuente, a coordinator at the Ontario-based nonprofit Euvalcree. Most of the clients who’ve lost jobs work in restaurants or retail stores.
But the statewide closures have affected farmworkers in other ways.
Roy Vargas, advisor for Treasure Valley Community College’s Small Business Development Center and a work crew supervisor on farms in Idaho and Oregon, said he’s heard of a few couples that have opted to go down to a single income so that mothers can stay home and take care of kids who are not in school.
Other parents have no option but to take children to work and leave them in cars with the windows down so they can keep an eye on them, said Norma Ramirez, programs manager at Euvalcree.
“The workers’ biggest concern is not being able to pay their bills,” said Jeaneth Mendoza, workforce consultant for the Oregon Human Development Corporation’s Ontario office.
The nonprofit is a resource for agricultural workers and runs a rental and utilities assistance program that does not ask applicants about immigration status. Mendoza said the program has seen a spike recently, with 20 people receiving help in the past two months.
De la Fuente said she’s had more agricultural workers inquiring about the Oregon Health Plan.
For undocumented workers, De la Fuente and Ramirez said there are very few resources.
“We usually tell them to go to food banks,” Ramirez said.
But even if there were more resources available, she said many people are afraid of accessing any help because they fear being labelled a “public charge.”
Federal immigration policy considers whether immigrants seeking entry into the country or a green card are likely to use social services.
Although the law does not apply to the naturalization process, many people are afraid that accepting any kind of help, whether they are documented or not, will affect them when they seek U.S. citizenship one day, De la Fuente said.
“We’ve heard of people saying they feel like they are less human than an American citizen,” Ramirez shared.
“They’re only essential for working,” added De la Fuente. “But not for having benefits.”
Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377
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