Study: California farm and food workers face health hazards during pandemic

Farm workers pick vegetables near Salinas.
Farm workers wearing face masks pick vegetables near Salinas during the pandemic. Photo by Chris Stone

Although agricultural and food production workers were considered essential workers during the pandemic, many of California’s food industry employers put those workers at risk, violating Cal/OSHA’s COVID-19 guidelines more often than most industries, it says in a new report.

The California Rural Research Institute report said farm and food production employers routinely failed to provide workers with face masks, enforce physical distancing or notify workers when there were workplace outbreaks of COVID.

The study is based on OSHA inspections from April 2020 through December 2021.

Although farms and food companies had the most violations of all industries, they had some of the smallest penalties, the report said; the average fine was $22,473.

Cal/OSHA did not respond to CalMatters’ question about the amount of fines. It released a statement Wednesday saying, “Cal/OSHA recognizes and appreciates the importance of this issue and is reviewing the CIRS report and recommendations.”

Dvera Saxton, a researcher with the Rural Research Institute, said Cal/OSHA cited food manufacturing employers four times more than all other industries in California during the first year of the pandemic. But food companies used the court and appeals process to try to reduce their penalties, she said.

“Often fines will be reduced or waived,” she said. “We know that food manufacturing employers – and the companies they produce for – have very powerful legal teams to reduce fines.”

The companies’ violations often included failing to provide and implement a health and safety system required by a 1991 state law, the study said.

The report describes food processing workers as those working in meatpacking, dairy and agriculture—predominantly black, Latino and Native American, often undocumented immigrants.

Maintaining worker safety

Among 36 farm jobs that use contractors, the report names Brutocao Vineyards. Cal/OSHA fined Brutocao Vineyards $3,710 in September 2020 for allegedly failing to provide face masks to three workers and neglecting to keep workers six feet apart.

Len Brutocao, director of vineyard operations, blamed the violations on the workers.

“We provided the masks and they just weren’t wearing them,” he said in an interview, adding that the company has since increased training and emphasized mask wearing.

Food and agriculture employers in California are not much different from similar employers across the country, said Suzanne Adeli, co-director of the Los Angeles-based Food Chain Workers Alliance, a national coalition of food industry worker unions.

The 21.5 million agricultural and food workers make up the nation’s largest workforce, she said. Lack of protection against COVID is just one of their many vulnerabilities.

“Food workers have the lowest average wages of any workforce and are the most food insecure,” Adelie said. “They have some of the highest rates of health and safety violations … and high rates of wage theft.”

As the pandemic continues, the report recommends that state leaders and Cal/OSHA officials strengthen paid sick leave protections, increase workplace inspections and ensure that employer health and safety data are more publicly available.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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