‘New territory’: Farmers describe safety precautions

Issue Date: August 12, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

Tailgate meetings. Safety classes. Mask requirements. Encouraging people to practice safe habits while off the clock: These are among the many measures farmers have been taking to encourage employee health during the pandemic, as related at a meeting of the State Board of Food and Agriculture.

The board heard last week from farmers around California who have been working to minimize the risk to their employees.

"We clearly all are in new territory here, and it's not just businesses in agriculture, but everybody that owns a business now is learning how to navigate this," said Bruce Rominger, a fifth-generation farmer in Yolo County with a diversified range of crops. "It's been very challenging."

Rominger said he has been receiving plenty of support from the Farm Bureau, the county agricultural commissioner's office and other groups, with information concerning safety protocols and what farmers need to do.

"Every morning, we're taking temperatures," Rominger told the board, itself meeting online because of the pandemic. "We are educating constantly. We are talking to people constantly: 'Hey, you need a mask on.'"

It hasn't been easy, he added.

"I know, because I'm out in the field with my workers quite a bit," Rominger said, noting that in the summer heat, masks can be uncomfortable. "I think we actually lose productivity because of the added burden of wearing that mask when you're out doing physical work."

One issue Rominger pointed out: Habits can be hard to break.

"Social distancing is still a little bit of a problem," he told the board. "It's just natural, and people forget, and we find people walking right up to somebody else. I don't know how many times I've had to say, 'OK, stop right there and tell me what you need to say, instead of walking right up to me.' That happens still to this day."

Joe Del Bosque of Firebaugh said he has 300 employees working to harvest his main crop, organic melons.

There was some uncertainty in the early days of the pandemic as to the effectiveness of masks, Del Bosque said. When it was decided they were needed, "we couldn't find any out here on the west side of Fresno County," he told the board. "The towns are small, like Mendota and Firebaugh, and all of the face coverings, they were all gone and we couldn't get any."

People volunteered to make masks for the employees, he added, "and we were so happy with that."

Del Bosque said he has also reached out to local doctors and health clinics, and continues to learn about COVID-19 and how to protect himself and his employees.

"A key to all this was education," something on which he prides himself, he said. "We do a lot of training here on safety, on all sorts of issues. This is something that we just added to our whole repertoire of safety topics."

Del Bosque said he and his wife reinforce the message by running safety training themselves.

"I personally go out to every crew and give them their training in Spanish," Del Bosque said. He said he thinks that "if they say, 'Well, if the boss thinks it's important enough to come out here and do this for us, it must be important.'"

Although he said he's confident in his workplace safety measures, "we're very concerned also about what happens when they leave work," Del Bosque said. "That's because almost two-thirds of their life is away from work."

He encourages employees to keep washing their hands and to pass safe practices to their families, as they risk exposure while shopping or playing outside.

At the state Capitol, a quartet of bills collectively called the COVID-19 Farmworker Relief Package have cleared the Assembly and await action in the Senate.

Its sponsors say Assembly Bill 2043, called the Agricultural Workplace Health and Safety Act, would fund an outreach and informational campaign for farm employees and improve tracking of complaints from farm employees. Other bills would deploy telehealth services for rural and community health centers (AB 2164) and expand e-filing availability to all state trial courts (AB 2165). A new Buy California Agricultural Products Act (AB 1248) would require state institutions, including schools, to buy agricultural products grown in California when available.

Efforts also are underway to expand the California Farmworker Housing Assistance Tax Credit to spur construction of new housing for farm and agricultural employees. The credit, funded at $500,000, would be expanded to $25 million under the proposal.

The bills are sponsored by Assemblymen Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, and Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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