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Food and Agriculture

California Mandates Emergency Workplace COVID-19 Protections, Less Crowding For Guest Farmworkers

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Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

California’s new policy will start to hold businesses accountable for protecting their workers, mandate reporting outbreaks and decrease crowding in housing for vulnerable guest farmworkers.

California’s businesses must follow new rules to protect workers from getting coronavirus on the job, while harvesting companies must minimize overcrowding in guest farmworker housing following a California Divide investigation that uncovered rampant coronavirus outbreaks this summer among a low-wage workforce putting fresh produce on America’s kitchen table.

The rulemaking body for the state’s workplace safety agency voted unanimously today to approve the requirements as part of a broader package of protections aimed at protecting millions of workers from getting coronavirus on the job. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s emergency standard is expected to take effect within 10 days and may be extended for up to 14 months.

Citing a joint investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian for the California Divide that uncovered outbreaks among farmworkers brought from other countries, housed in crowded motel rooms and bussed to and from work by the dozen, Cal/OSHA wrote “there has been an overrepresentation of migrant temporary farmworkers testing positive for COVID-19.” Under the new standards, workers must be housed in disinfected rooms with beds spaced six feet apart and sit at least three feet apart when transported to farm fields. Employers must do their best to keep workers in stable pods who sleep, bus and work together to minimize outbreaks.

Sandra Aguila of California Rural Legal Assistance in Santa Maria said the more than one hundred known COVID cases among guest workers brought to the U.S. on H-2A visas there were “not isolated events.”

“In Santa Maria, you often see 30 H-2A workers being housed in a small 1200 square feet single family home, or as many as six workers housed in one motel room,” Aguila said. “Adopting the proposed regulations will reduce the risk of future deaths.”

The standards also require that employers identify and fix COVID-19 hazards with the help of workers, notify all potentially exposed employees and offer them testing, pay workers while they are quarantined, and report all outbreaks to local health departments — provisions that Cal/OSHA wrote were “necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19 in California workers.”

Though some employers worried the new rules were confusing and burdensome, workers and labor advocates lauded the new rules as crucial to slowing the spread of coronavirus among essential workforces and the communities they go home to after work, as California cases soar. During the pandemic, Cal/OSHA has conducted nearly 500 inspections into work-related COVID accidents, including 187 deaths.

The new rules also drew the backing of California’s top prosecutor.

“There is no room for complacency,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra stated. “This temporary emergency standard will help clarify what needs to be done to protect workers and ensure that local authorities have the tools they need to take action.”

Over the summer, Cal/OSHA published dozens of industry-specific COVID guidelines, but they are not mandatory. Since August, Cal/OSHA has issued over $1.5 million in COVID-19 related citations to businesses that did not implement an effective Illness and Injury Prevention Plan or follow California’s aerosol disease standard for certain health-related workplaces.

The new emergency standard gets much more specific about the health and safety precautions that employers must take — or face penalties from Cal/OSHA.

New protections for guest workers
In August, CalMatters and the Salinas Californian uncovered reports of six outbreaks at seven companies that employ guest agricultural workers in four counties across the state, sickening more than 350.

Guest workers are uniquely vulnerable to the virus because they sleep five to a room, on average. They usually depend on their employer for legal entry, wages, housing, transportation and food, making it especially challenging for guest workers to speak out against unsafe conditions.

In a legislative hearing on Tuesday, Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker highlighted “these particularly high-risk situations.”

“Especially important will be the new clear standards on employer-provided housing and transportation that we’ve proposed in that emergency standard, these are issues most common in agriculture, to help reduce COVID-19 transmission,” Parker said.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.