Malheur County farm employers have low participation in state’s grant program for Covid-related costs

Agricultural producers and workers took a huge hit financially due to state-issued Covid restrictions, but only one farm in Malheur County so far has applied for assistance created to help ease the financial pain.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration in April announced a set of temporary rules for agricultural employers meant to safeguard workers from the coronavirus.

When the agriculture industry said the new measures would prove costly, state officials arranged a special program to help cover costs of such items as housing, field sanitation and transportation.

But as of June 29, the state has received just 87 applications with only one from Malheur County, said Andrea Cantu-Schomus, director of communications for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The rules created stricter field sanitation, housing and transportation regulations. For example, agricultural employers are required to rearrange work activities and housing arrangements to keep employees at least 6 feet apart. During transportation, passengers must keep 3 feet of distance and wear face coverings.

Employers are also required to decrease the ratio of toilet and handwashing facilities from one per 20 workers to one per 10 workers.

On April 29, the Oregon Farm Bureau released a statement outlining its concerns about the new rules, including only giving agricultural employers 11 days’ notice “to make significant changes” and creating financial problems.

“Some Farm Bureau members reported having to pay $5,000 for each new portable bathroom, about $1,000 per week for sanitation supplies and $2,000 for a single van to transport employees for the season,” said Samantha Bayer, Oregon Farm Bureau policy counsel.

The Bureau noted that the social distancing in housing would “reduce the amount of available housing for farm employees,” especially in rural areas “where there are no viable alternative lodging options available.”

“Moreover, farmers and ranchers are already under tremendous economic pressure after years of lower prices received, and now they are facing additional hardship from the pandemic,” the statement said. “Many farms will not survive the cumulative weight of these unattainable rules, which are more burdensome than any set for other sectors of Oregon’s economy.”

Bayer said the temporary rules “are more extensive for agriculture than for any other sector,” and the Farm Bureau’s main concerns were overwhelming costs and unintended consequences due to the rules’ “one-size-fits-all approach.”

“We have one member in Marion County who estimated it would cost her farm $30,000 to house 10 employees at a local hotel for a month,” said Bayer. “Some farmers have been forced to make the difficult decision to reduce their workforce and limit their harvest capacity this season.”

Oregon OSHA delayed enforcing the new rules until June 1.

The Farm Bureau reacted with a statement that while it appreciated the extension, not much had changed. The rules still went into effect on May 11, Bayer said — the administration was just not levying fines, which meant agricultural producers and workers could still be subject to civil litigation.

She said July 9 that the Farm Bureau was still concerned that farmers could be subject to Covid-related lawsuits over the conditions.

“Even if they do all they can to follow the myriad of constantly changing state and federal health and safety guidelines, a farm employee or customer can still contract COVID-19 off-site,” said Bayer. “We fear some will try to hold farms and ranches responsible for circumstances outside of their control.”

On June 10, the state started taking applications for the Food Security and Farmworker Safety Program, which provides financial assistance through grants to help producers comply with the new guidelines.

Bayer said the Farm Bureau is thankful for the program because it has been a “lifeline” for many agricultural producers and workers, but not all. The program doesn’t reimburse all expenses, such as PPE and sanitation supplies.

“Some farmers can’t access the program because these sorts of costs aren’t covered,” said Bayer.

Gov. Kate Brown directed 1 million KN95 masks and 5,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to go to farmworkers and producers, distributed statewide May 27-28 through the Oregon State University Extension Service.

Cantu-Schomus said the program was created in response to the pushback from “multiple stakeholders” after the temporary rules were put in place. She said the program was developed using “feedback from a diverse group of agricultural stakeholders, including the Oregon Farm Bureau” by the Department of Agriculture, Oregon Health Authority, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Oregon Housing and Community Services.

“Agriculture had to quickly make adjustments at every step along the supply chain to protect employees and consumers while still operating,” said Cantu-Schomus. “These additional measures had to happen quickly and for many agricultural producers there was little time or resources to make adjustments.”

But Cantu-Schomus said the low number of applications is because “it is still very early in the process.”

“The program is a reimbursement-based assistance and the applications that have been submitted early are crop producers or those who wanted to start the application process early,” said Cantu-Schomus.

Bayer said some farmers are currently in the middle of harvest and have until October to apply.

“The program was designed so it wasn’t a mad rush at the beginning for fear of money running out,” said Bayer.

Jeana Hall, Malheur County Farm Bureau president, said she does not know which agricultural employer in the county applied, and that she is “not real familiar with all of the rules.”

“As with any rules, we always have to, you know, do our best with them,” said Hall. “Mostly, we are trying to make a living.”

News tip? Contact reporter Bailey Lewis at [email protected]


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