January 2021, Volume 27, Number 1
Cal/OSHA in November 2020 issued emergency rules that require employers to identify potential Covid transmission points in their workplaces with the help of their employees, notify potentially exposed employees of Covid outbreaks and offer them testing at the workplace, pay workers for two weeks while they are in quarantine, and report Covid outbreaks to local health departments https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/coronavirus/COVID19FAQs.html).
The new rules require workers to wear masks indoors unless they are at least six feet apart. There are special provisions for H-2A workers, whose beds must be at least six feet apart and who must be kept at least three feet apart while being transported. H-2A workers are be organized in stable pods or groups who sleep, travel and work together to minimize outbreaks. Over 350 H-2A workers contracted Covid in California in 2020.
California farm employers opposed the emergency Cal/OSHA regulations, arguing that they were unnecessary overkill that conflicts with federal law and could reduce the housing available to farm workers. Farmers argued that Cal/OSHA failed to show that Covid spread faster in farm workplaces than in the community, that employers should not be responsible for community transmission, and that H-2A housing requirements, which are regulated by federal law, should not be changed by an emergency regulation.
Fresno county in December 2020 released guidelines that urged farm employers to test 10 percent of their employees every two weeks, to space workers properly in employer-provided transportation, and to have a Covid coordinator to develop a workplace safety plan. Many states including California amended their workers compensation laws to allow workers with Covid to presume that the disease was contracted at work.
California’s Housing for the Harvest program, under which the state paid for motel rooms for farm workers in quarantine, attracted less than 100 farm workers between July and December 2020. California spent $75,000, three-fourths reimbursed by the federal government, to reserve hotel rooms before realizing that most farm workers prefer to isolate at home rather than be isolated in hotels. More farm workers requested cash aid to replace lost wages than free motel rooms that took them away from their families.
Media reports suggested that some California farm workers earned less in 2020 than in 2019 because they worked fewer hours, leaving them with debts rather than savings for the winter season when there is little farm work. Worker advocates report that state efforts to help unauthorized farm workers are often shunned by workers who are fearful of becoming known to immigration authorities.