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County partners with agencies to offer migrant workers protections

Jackson County’s ongoing distribution of personal protective equipment expanded this week to include agricultural workers as hemp fields, vineyards, pear orchards and other crops move into the harvest season.

“This is yet another phase,” said Helen Funk, director of the Jackson County Expo. Thousands of face masks, gloves and other PPE is stockpiled there for distribution to hospitals, long-term care facilities and now farm employees.

From 7 to 10 a.m. each morning since Wednesday, Funk has been on site handing out the materials requested by growers, with a plan to continue throughout the next few months. By the end of Thursday, staff had handed out 11,000 masks to about nine hemp, vineyard and pear employers, said Steve Lambert, operations section lead with the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center.

The distribution of materials to help keep agricultural workers, many of whom are migrants traveling with the tides of seasonal labor, safer amid the ongoing risks of the COVID-19 pandemic is a high priority in this year’s harvest. Lambert and a working group including staff from La Clinica, Unete Center for Farmwork and Immigrant Advocacy, orchard owners and Jackson County Health and Human Services have planned a two-pronged approach to help employers bringing migrant workers into the area protect them from the coronavirus.

“We’re just encouraging folks, trying to get the word out to contact us,” Lambert said. “We’re ready to support you now.”

Beyond making protective equipment handed down by the state available to mitigate spread of disease while workers are in close proximity, the partners in the working group focused on creating a way for employers to test all of their incoming workers for COVID-19 before they begin employment.

“What we’ve been telling growers is, we are here to help you with any agricultural worker needs,” said Becky Sherman, nursing director at La Clinica. That includes offering the pre-employment testing free of cost to employers, though they can pay for more expedited same-day testing results.

Employers can arrange testing by calling Jackson County Health and Human Services at 541-774-8209.

La Clinica has long been involved with providing care to seasonal workers, including direct outreach through its mobile unit at the camps where workers spend their evenings. That work will continue this year, though with extra precautions, Sherman said.

Part of that will include education outreach to help equip workers with the knowledge to protect themselves adequately, including reporting to their supervisors if they feel they may be experiencing symptoms.

Kathy Keese, program manager with Unete, said workers employed on H-2A visas in particular may struggle with the decision to report symptoms or request to be quarantined for fear of placing their employment in jeopardy.

“We’re really trying to encourage people, speak up if you’re feeling bad,” she said.

Latino people, as many of the migrant workers that labor during the harvest are, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in several parts of Oregon and beyond, contracting and dying from the disease at rates that soar above other races.

Keese said Jackson County’s efforts to provide employers help in protecting their workers are the most proactive she’s seen among Oregon counties.

“They have a pretty well-laid out plan,” she said. “They were really thoughtful about trying to take into consideration the limitations of the growers.”

PPE will continue to come to the county via private contractors hauling it down from the Oregon stockpile. Employers who plan to come pick some up are encouraged to email JC_EOC_LOGISTICS@jacksoncounty.org in advance, specifying how many workers they need supplies for. That way, the order can be prepared in advance.

The KN95 masks that the county is handing out are intended for single uses, Funk said, and she tries to prepare orders such that there will be enough for all the needed employees for four weeks at a time.

“We got plenty of masks,” she said. “Our intent is to be here as long as we’re needed.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune -{ } Jackson County EXPO director Helen Funk checks inventory of face shields Friday morning in Central Point.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune - Jackson County EXPO director Helen Funk checks inventory of PPE supplies Friday morning in Central Point.