Many Oregon farmworkers suffered during pandemic, report finds

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A recent study conducted by a team of social science researchers found that many Oregon farmers experienced unsafe, unsustainable and even dehumanizing experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The team, comprised of researchers from Oregon State University, Portland State University, University of Oregon, Oregon Health and Sciences University and the California Institute for Rural Studies, conducted an initial survey of 300 farmworkers across the state between August and September 2020, and also conducted in-depth interviews with 48 workers between February and July 2021. 

During that six-month period of time, half of the interviewees tested positive for COVID-19, causing them to lose wages during the mandatory 10-day quarantine due to the lack of paid sick leave. 

Many of them ended up having to choose between paying for food, rent, and their children’s healthcare. 

Oregon State University Ethnic Studies Professor Ron Mize was one of the authors of the study, which was only part of a longer-term study examining working conditions for farmworkers across Washington, Oregon and California. 

His teaching includes a course on farmworker justice movements. 

“Over the years that I’ve taught, I still have to remind people that the way food gets to our table is by people’s hands,” Mize said. “It’s hard labor that’s really poorly remunerated that keeps our food prices low, keeps our food plentiful, keeps food on our table; and yet we consistently neglect the reality that farmworkers are fundamental to our food system.

“That 10 days of quarantine can put you so far behind that you’ll never get back to just the scraping by that you were doing before,” he added. “The impacts of the last two years have been cumulative, and they will continue to impact farmworkers.”

Women workers often stayed at home with their kids, who were shifted to remote learning, as well as sick family members. 

Interviews found that this further reduced families’ incomes and added to stress and emotional burnout. 

The study’s director, Portland State University Ph.D. student Jennifer Martinez-Medina said conducting direct interviews with farmworkers was a top priority. 

“The scarce data available about farmworkers too often is disjointed and not collected with the intention of capturing farmworkers in all their complexity and their own voices,” she said. “They are the experts best positioned to describe their lived experiences and the political action required to be treated with dignity.”

Undocumented workers faced the fear of being labeled a “public charge” and becoming ineligible to apply for legal residency if they received SNAP food benefits or free medical care. 

Though that policy was never passed, undocumented workers often refrain from seeking public benefits out of fear. 

Many workers also struggled with the language barrier, and employers often rely on the employees themselves to translate health information into Spanish and other languages. That means the crucial information often slips through the cracks. 

More than half of the farmworkers interviewed also didn’t feel protected or informed about COVID-19 infections in their workplace. Some spoke of Occupational Safety Health and Administration inspectors failing to report conditions where people worked closely without masks or protective equipment. 

“Too often, the standards for what’s OK for farmworkers are different from what’s OK for everybody else,” Mize said. “OSHA can be held responsible, farms can be held responsible, and we as a collective public can be held responsible.”

Workers and researchers made recommendations at the end of the study, with workers requesting more regular safety and health checks, better vaccination efforts, more focus on the needs of Indigenous communities, better employer education, and immigration documents so more workers can receive work benefits. 

Researchers called for better training, safety net resources, mental health support, and stronger workplace protections and enforcement. 

“There is no one silver bullet. All these elements have to be addressed together,” Mize said. “I’m hoping our legislative leaders follow that lead, because we can have much more impact on policy when we’re thinking of farmworkers holistically with their whole life, instead of thinking about them as an OSHA inspection or an exposure rate.”

The study comes just after the Oregon legislature passed a new law allowing overtime pay for farmworkers.

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