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Protecting the workers and the harvest

For the seasonal workers picking early pears in Frink Orchard, the summer already looks different from years past.

At the end of the workday, the August heat still chases most of the men staying at the bunkhouse inside to seek the cooling relief of fans. But amid normal end-of-day rituals, there are also extra precautions — to maintain distance from each other, to wash shared surfaces more rigorously and to wear face coverings.

Pedro, who hails from Oaxaca and is working his third harvest in a row in Medford, said he never experienced this level of caution before COVID-19 became an additional risk factor of his job. When he arrived two weeks earlier, his bosses held a meeting to go over the added safety protocols involved with this year’s harvest.

“After a while, we adapted to what they told us,” he said in Spanish. “Pretty much without problems.”

Not all of the new requirements, which were set in place as temporary emergency rules by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, have been popular with employers, however.

Some local growers have raised concerns through their elected representatives that the temporary emergency restrictions create insurmountable barriers to bringing the needed number of workers into the Rogue Valley to complete the harvest.

But as increasing numbers of migrant laborers are set to arrive in the coming months, the procedures around distancing in employer-provided housing and transportation will only become more important.

“We don’t want anyone dying because they weren’t allowed to social distance, or they didn’t understand that they needed to,” said Kathy Keese, program coordinator for the Unete Center for Farmworker Advocacy.

Keese and others at Unete have been part of a working group headed by the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center that focused on ways to support growers as they shoulder much of the responsibility to prevent infection among the migrant workers whom they employ and house during the harvest.

Keese estimates that about 600 workers will come into the Rogue Valley throughout the harvest. Most arrive in August and September.

Jackson County has established a program to enable pre-employment COVID-19 screenings. La Clinica is donating staff time to perform the tests. The county likely will bear the cost of the tests, unless an employer requests same-day results, which they’ll be charged for.

Pedro said he wasn’t tested for COVID-19 when he arrived in Medford in July. Seferino, another worker who stays at the same bunkhouse, said he wasn’t, either.

In addition to the pre-employment screenings, growers have had to rapidly change how they arrange transportation and housing for their workers, especially those who, like Pedro, are authorized to work in the country through an H-2A visa.

“This is something I never in a million years thought I would end up becoming as involved in as I did,” said state Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford. “But it’s very concerning to me.”

Wallan was the first of a few elected officials from the Rogue Valley to send a letter — and in her case, a request for records — to Oregon OSHA Director Michael Wood. In her letter, Wallan questioned whether OSHA’s newest Local Emphasis Program focusing on food processing and agricultural operations would unnecessarily penalize employers whose employees might self-report a case of COVID-19.

“I had heard that a number of our ‘outbreaks’ in Oregon have occurred in food processing facilities,” Wallan wrote in her letter. “My constituents have informed me that in many of those cases, the tests were provided voluntarily by the employer, and the results of the contact tracing showed that the employees were actually exposed to COVID-19 before they came into the state or that they had been exposed off the worksite.

“It seems fundamentally unfair to punish this industry when it was taking its own steps to keep its workers safe,” she wrote.

Wood disagreed with the characterization of the Local Emphasis Program, which went into effect June 26, as a pathway to punish employers for positive tests. He acknowledged that his agency enacts the programs focusing on industries that, based on a few state data sources and “knowledge of recognized hazards,” can be identified as “the most hazardous.”

But, he said, execution of the program looks more like OSHA enforcement officers performing inspections on workplaces in the relevant workplaces even before a complaint, or a COVID-19 outbreak, is reported.

“What this program does is, rather than relying exclusively on complaints and case reports at all, we’ll be taking a random sample of businesses in agriculture and food processing and inspecting them to look at what their processes are,” he said in an interview.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners raised similar concerns about the Local Emphasis Program in their own letter to Wood, which they agreed to send during a meeting July 20. The board expressed concern with other aspects of OSHA’s policies, as well, however, including a worry that the temporary rules the agency had put in place, set to expire in October, would instead be made permanent, without undergoing a public rule-making process.

Wood denied the likelihood of that outcome.

“We can’t do that,” he said. “That’s illegal.”

Like Wallan, the county commissioners wrote that feedback from local agriculture employers had pushed them to send the letter.

“These concerns have particularly been voiced by those in the wine grape and pear industries, both of which are very large and critical industries in Southern Oregon,” the board’s letter said.

The Mail Tribune reached out to two of the largest employers in the pear industry, Naumes, Inc. and Harry and David, with questions about the impacts of the OSHA temporary rules on their harvest capabilities. Harry and David answered preliminary questions not related to the OSHA rules. Two messages left with Naumes, Inc. were not returned.

Wallan said she had heard from representatives from both of those companies that the housing and transportation rules were causing the most trouble, including maintaining 3 feet of distance between each person being transported by an employer to and from a worksite, for example.

“By the time they reduced ... the number of workers in a vehicle, they could only transport a third of the normal capacity,” she said.

Until employers can establish their ability to provide adequate housing to U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, Wallan said, they aren’t able to secure the H-2A visas needed.

For smaller orchards, such as Meyer Orchards in Talent, which brings in only seven H-2A workers in its season, the rules requiring greater distancing between workers in their housing and vehicles are more workable, said owner Ron Meyer.

Still, he said, the changes don’t come without a cost.

“All the little things add up to more money,” he said. “And pear growers are going broke in the valley.”

But Keese pointed out that it also won’t help growers if a large percentage of their workforce gets sick with COVID-19 and can’t work.

“Farmworkers are not disposable human beings,” she said. “They have certain levels of skill that the growers are looking for. ... If we want to reduce (or) limit these restrictions to benefit growers’ pocketbooks, we’ll have more people dying.”

Latino people, who figure heavily in the labor force that works the agricultural harvests, have experienced disproportionate negative impact from COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. The Pew Research Center found through an April survey that Hispanic people were more likely than Americans overall to say they or someone in their household has experienced a pay cut or lost their job because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Even in August, Hispanic people make up nearly 40% of Oregon’s COVID-19 cases, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority. That’s a notable disparity from the percentage of Oregon’s overall population that Hispanic and Latino people account for: just 13.3%, according to 2018 Census estimates.

To try to avoid illness, Unete has been holding educational outreach through media such as Zoom and Facebook Live to inform migrant workers of the necessity to report symptoms to their foreman, and to protect themselves both on and off the job through social distancing and sanitation. Dagoberto Morales, director of the nonprofit, visits the worker housing and camps to distribute handmade masks donated by community members.

Unete is also a local partner helping connect workers who will need to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure with funds made available through the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, or Alivio Laboral de Oregon. The money will be provided to applicants for any hours they miss out on due to illness or quarantine.

That can be a key prevention effort, especially in cases of undocumented workers, who aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits. There’s a greater temptation to work through illness, which increases infection spread.

Keese applauded the efforts of local partners to keep workers safe, but added that the rules themselves may not be enough.

“I appreciate the effort that the county has put out with this and the growers that have participated,” she said. “But I’m fearful of the folks that might disregard (the rules) or keep their fingers crossed that nothing’s going to happen to them.”

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneSeferino, a migrant worker living in a bunkhouse provided by his employer during the pear harvest, accepts a fabric face covering from Dagoberto Morales, director of the Unete Center for Farmworker Advocacy. The nonprofit is working to keep workers safe during this year’s harvest as COVID-19 heightens the risks of the job.