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CDC & DOL Interim COVID-19 Guidance for Agricultural Workers and Employers

In early June, after various months of workers and advocates pushing for much needed protections against COVID-19 for agricultural workers, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published joint interim guidance on this issue. However, OSHA continues to ignore widespread demands to issue an enforceable COVID safety standard for workplaces in agriculture and other sectors.

Farmworker Justice wrote a summary of the recent guidance, detailing its key provisions. The guidance recommends development of a workplace assessment and control plan, screening workers, disinfection and sanitation, physical distancing, face masks and other procedures and protections. Although the guidance is an improvement on the previous lack of federal guidance for protecting these essential workers, there are still significant gaps that need to be addressed.

The most fundamental problem that remains is that the guidance is neither mandatory nor enforceable. Although it lists measures employers should take, there is no requirement to follow the guidance nor any consequences for employers who do not put them in place. This is particularly troubling given that the guidance was issued after OSHA had already received over 5,000 complaints from different types of workers regarding lack of COVID protections, on which it has yet to take any significant actions. OSHA should immediately issue an interim regulation to protect agricultural and other workers from preventable illness and death from COVID-19.

Beyond the lack of enforceability of its provisions, there are various other aspects of the guidance that are unclear or concerning. For example, as with previous guidance issued for workers in essential sectors, it supports employers keeping workers on the job even if they have potentially been exposed to COVID-19, as long as they are asymptomatic. This is contrary to the CDC’s own information, as well as that of other national and global health authorities, that asymptomatic individuals can transmit the virus to others. Similarly, although the guidance states that employers should “consider modifying” their sick leave policies, it conspicuously fails to mention the requirement on many employers to provide paid sick leave pursuant to COVID legislation passed by Congress in March. The DOL has been criticized for failing to publicize these new requirements, despite Congressional funding specifically earmarked for these outreach efforts.

The message that both OSHA and the CDC are sending to employers is that COVID protections are merely optional, undermining the severity and urgency of the COVID crisis, and posing a real and imminent danger for workers. The government’s main focus, in an unfortunate continuation of its previous actions on COVID and other issues, seems to be to ensure that workers continue to go to work. While the Administration’s actions show callous disregard for the health and safety of workers, they also ignore the obvious risk to the nation’s food supply if workers become exposed to COVID-19.

Farmworker Justice continues to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on farmworkers and their families and communities. We are advocating for federal and state action on job safety standards, paid sick leave, premium pay, COVID-19 testing, access to health care, and other critically important policy issues to ensure worker safety. You can find multiple resources regarding COVID-19 and farmworkers on our website, including various letters by FJ and partner organizations sent to the Administration at the beginning of the COVID crisis, urging them to take action to protect these essential workers.