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October 2020, Volume 26, Number 4

California: Covid, Laws

Farm employers and workers struggled to minimize Covid-19 in summer 2020. Many employers tried to keep crews isolated from one another to limit the spread of Covid. However, there were reports of workers who tested positive at one farm changing employers rather than going into quarantine, potentially spreading the virus. More common appeared to be instances of farm workers contracting Covid at away-from-work events such as family gatherings and discovering they had Covid when tested at work.

Smoke from wildfires made field work uncomfortable and dangerous in August-September 2020. Under a 2019 regulation, farm employers must provide workers with N-95 masks when the air quality index exceeds 150.

There was a Covid outbreak among H-2A workers in summer 2020 at Alco Harvesting, which provides workers for Bonipak in Santa Maria. Alco housed H-2A workers in motels with four workers per room in bunk beds. By one estimate, some 350 H-2A workers contracted Covid by August 2020, prompting Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to require farm employers to screen H-2A workers daily for Covid-19 symptoms.

Health officials recommended that H-2A workers be segregated into groups of no more than 14 workers for housing, work and transportation in order to limit the spread of Covid.

The California Farm Bureau Federation received 500 responses to a survey that was online between April and August 2020 that ask how Covid affected farmers and their farming operations. A quarter of respondents laid off some employees due a Covid-related loss of business. Of the 100 respondents who explained what their laid off employees did, 45 percent reported that some laid-off workers applied for UI benefits and a third reported some of their employees applied for California’s mandated sick leave.

A fifth of respondents had some employees who were unable to work due to a Covid restriction, most often because the employee was in a high-risk group. A sixth of respondents said that they were unable to undertake a normal seasonal activity due to employee absences.

A quarter of respondents reported that some work days were lost due to Covid-related employee absences, but 85 percent of these respondents lost fewer than 60 workdays, equivalent to 10-six day weeks. Over 80 percent of respondents who lost employees due to Covid were able to hire replacements, usually via word of mouth.

Respondents did not report the total days worked on their farms, but the Census of Agriculture suggested 856 million hours worked in California crops and livestock in 2017, equivalent to 107 million eight-hour days. The COA reported 30,000 farms with labor expenses in 2017, including 12,000 with $50,000 or more in farm labor expenses or 500 work days at $100 a day. These 12,000 farms accounted for 96 percent of the state’s direct-hire labor expenses. If a quarter of these 12,000 farms lost an average five work days due to covid, 3,000 farms would have lost a total of 15,000 work days, a tiny fraction of total workdays.

The CFBF survey suggests disruptions due to Covid, including lost sales and reduced off farm income, but little reduction in the farm labor supply due to the virus. Most employers were able to hire workers to replace those unable to work due to Covid.

Some media reported that Covid was rampant among farm workers and was spread by workers who migrate from area to area. A Purdue University dashboard that estimates Covid cases by state relies on Census of Agriculture data for 2017, which reports in Table 7 the number of workers hired directly by farmers (in California, over half of workers on crop farms are brought there by crop support service employers). Purdue sums the number of farm producers and hired workers by state and county, and assumes that agricultural workers contract Covid at the same rate as other residents of the county.

Purdue estimated 128,000 cases of Covid among US farmers and farm workers at the end of September 2020, about 1.7 percent of the almost seven million US cases. The purpose of the Purdue model is to estimate how supplies of farm commodities might be reduced by Covid, but the model does not permit increases in production, which occurred for some commodities in 2020.

Laws. Governor Newsom signed several bills into law. AB 2043 requires the Department of Industrial Relations to develop an outreach campaign to inform farm workers of best practices to avoid Covid-19 and to educate them about paid sick leave, workers’ compensation and other coronavirus-related services. DIR estimates the cost at $1.8 million over two years.

SB 1159 presumes that front-line employees including farm workers who contract covid-19 did so at work and are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.

AB 685 requires California employers to report to their employees, as well as to Cal/OSHA and the state Department of Public Health, any COVID-19 infections they "knew or should have reasonably known of." Employers may not retaliate against employees who request covid tests, and Cal/OSHA may close workplaces due to covid hazards. Most county health departments do not publish the names of employers or the occupation of people who test positive for Covid.

AB 1867 requires employers with over 500 employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees, closing a gap in federal law that exempted large employers. SB 1383 expands the California Family Rights Act to require all employers with five or more employees to provide paid sick leave for employees who care for family members with serious health conditions.

SB 1102, which was vetoed, would have required employers to provide written notice of their rights to H-2A and made H-2A workers in employer-provided housing tenants under California housing laws.

Housing for the Harvest, a state program that uses FEMA money to provide hotel rooms for agricultural workers who test positive or were exposed to the virus so they can isolate safely, was launched in several counties in September 2020. County governments are expected to provide isolating farm workers with food, and NGOs are expected to provide other services.

There were Covid-19 outbreaks in summer 2020 at several packing houses including Primex Farms, a pistachio processing plant in Wasco with 400 year-round employees where a third tested positive for the virus. After some Primex workers protested unsafe working conditions and demanded paid sick leave for workers who were afraid to work, the UFW asked the state to investigate Primex and filed charges with the NLRB alleging that Primex unlawfully fired some of the protesting workers.

Primex processed six percent of the state’s one billion pounds of pistachios in 2018. Yields vary from year to year, and were 2,400 pounds an acre in 2017 and 3,700 pounds an acre in 2018. Projections assume that growers will continue to add 15,000 acres a year and produce 1.5 billion pounds of pistachios from 400,000 acres in 2026.

The UFW represents 2,000 of the 3,700 workers at several Foster Farms plants in Livingston, where 400 workers tested positive for covid by September 2020 and eight died. The Merced County Health Department ordered one of the Foster Livingston plants to close for a week in September 2020; Foster sent 1,400 workers home with pay before reopening under monitoring from the Health Department. Foster Farms employs a total of 12,000 people in Turlock, Livingston, Fresno, Porterville, Oregon, Washington, Louisiana and Alabama.

The UFW displaced the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers as the representative of Foster’s Livingston workers in 2017, and is re-negotiating its first contract with Foster in fall 2020. The UFW wants Foster to do more testing and to establish a health and safety committee.

Impacts. There were three major impacts of Covid on California farm labor in 2020. First, there are some suggestions that farm workers were more likely to contract Covid away from work rather than at work, while nonfarm food-processing workers were more likely to contract covid at work.

Second, despite record unemployment rates, the number of H-2A workers rose, suggesting that it will be hard to fill seasonal farm jobs with unemployed US workers.

Third, Covid is likely to speed changes already underway, including more labor-saving mechanization, more H-2A workers, and more imports of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fuller. Agriculture evolved to expect a just-in-time workforce that is paid when it works. A 1930 spokesperson for vegetable growers argued that farmers need an "ample, fluid, and unfailing supply of labor ... to harvest the crops on the hour, not the day, not the week, or the month." (Fuller, 1955, p18).

By paying workers only when they work, hourly farm wages are high but labor costs are low. The value of land used to produce labor-intensive commodities increases, giving land owners an incentive to maintain a just-in-time workforce.

Fuller, Varden. 1955. Labor Relations in Agriculture. UCB.

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