According to Oregon.gov, Gov. Kate Brown extended via Executive Order the COVID-19 protections for agriculture workers living in employer provided housing through the off season. Oregon Farm Bureau responded with a sharp-tongued article the same day, claiming the Governor subverted public process. OFB was “shocked that the Governor would add criminal penalties to the enforcement of these rules.”
OFB also alleged in their article “adoption of the original temporary COVID-19 rules for agriculture allowed no meaningful public input and resulted from an activist petition, not from any public health or scientific experts.” They claim that there “has not been an identified ‘outbreak’ of COVID-19 in agricultural housing since the beginning of the pandemic, even before the temporary rules were adopted,” citing data from OR-OSHA showing that of the 11,617 complaints made and violations found, only 33 were represented by the agricultural industry.
The OFB claims that because of the requirements and rules of the executive order and the original rules, agricultural employees are being forced to find housing off-site, and this could contribute to higher numbers of COVID-19 cases. While the Farm Bureau agrees with the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in housing, they believe employees can be protected without the need to displace them.
According to their article, OFB claims that agricultural leaders were not informed by the Governor’s staff of the Executive Order until less than 24 hours before issuance, and that the text was not shared with enough time before implementation to allow for official public comment or stakeholder perspectives. OFB also alleges that the timing of the executive order subverted the requirements of the Oregon Administrative Procedures Act.
“Executive Orders must be reserved for true public health emergencies, not the subversion of public process,” OFB wrote. “We are disappointed with today’s release of an executive Order that will do little to promote the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable communities and circumvents the required public process.”
In an announcement of the Executive Order on Oregon.gov, Brown defended her position, insisting that the protections put into place in March are necessary. “There is no doubt that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on historically underserved and marginalized communities, including migrant and seasonal farmworkers,” Brown said. “As workers continue critical farm labor activities through the off-season, it is important that these much-needed protections remain in place.”
When contacted for comment, the Governor’s Office responded through Press Secretary Liz Merah saying “The protections put in place in May were a result of Oregon OSHA enacting emergency rules to help protect these critical farmworkers from COVID-19. Stakeholder outreach was conducted—a result of which was the establishment of the Food Security & Farmworker Safety program. Because the emergency rules expired, Executive Order 20-58 extends farmworker protections through the off-season while OSHA works to adopt permanent rules. The permanent rulemaking process will provide an opportunity for further public and stakeholder input.”
The new executive order is in effect through April 30, 2021. Meanwhile, Oregon OSHA is working to adopt permanent rules to protect the agricultural worker community. According to the county, Holiday Tree Farms are the only registered agricultural housing provider in Benton County. They declined to comment on whether the executive order has had any effect on their business or employees.
By Kyra Young