Farmers harvest vegetables near Salinas.
Workers on masks wearing masks harvested leaves near Salinas during the epidemic. Photo by Chris Stone

Although farm and food workers are seen as essential workers during the epidemic, many California food workers put the workers at risk, violating Cal / OSHA’s COVID-19 guidelines more often than in factories, a new report said.

A report by the California Institute for Rural Studies’ stated that employers in farms and food fields failed to give workers masks on their faces, nor did they force them to distance themselves or inform workers in the event of COVID epidemics in the workplace.

The study was based on the OSHA study from April 2020 to December 2021.

Although farms and food companies had the worst violations of all industries, they had the smallest penalties, the report said; the median penalty was $ 22,473.

Cal / OSHA did not respond to CalMatters’ queries regarding fines. “Cal / OSHA recognizes and appreciates the importance of this issue, and is reviewing the CIRS report and views,” he said.

Dvera Saxton, a researcher at a rural learning center, said Cal / OSHA had quadrupled the food production industry in California in the first year of the epidemic. But food companies have resorted to stigma and harassment to reduce their penalties, he said.

“Often the fine is reduced or eliminated,” he said. “We know that food producers – and the companies that make them – have very strong legal structures to reduce fines.”

Corporate breaches often include failure to provide and implement a health and safety system, which is required by a 1991 state law, the study said.

The report identifies food production workers as those involved in the transport of meat, dairy and agriculture – mainly blacks, Latinos, and Indians, who are often illegal.

Protecting Workers

Of the 36 agricultural enterprises that use contractors, the report cites Brutocao Vines. Cal / OSHA fined Brutocao Vineyards $ 3,710 in September 2020 for failing to provide face masks to three employees and neglecting to keep employees away.

Len Brutocao, the vineyard manager, blamed the workers.

“We provided masks, and they did not wear them,” he said in an interview, adding that the company had further trained and emphasized the wearing of masks.

California food producers and farm workers are no different from their employers across the country, says Suzanne Adely, director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance in Los Angeles, an international federation of food service organizations.

21.5 million farm workers and food workers are the largest workers in the country, he said. The lack of COVID protection is one of their many weaknesses.

“Food workers have a much lower middle income than workers and are the ones who do not have enough food,” Adely said. “They have a very high risk of violating health and safety … as well as high levels of paid theft.”

As the epidemic continues, the report urges government officials and Cal / OSHA officials to promote paid sick leave, increase workplace visits and ensure that health information and safety of employers are readily available to the public.

CalMatters is a popular journalist who has volunteered to explain how the California Capitol government works and why it is important.

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