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Commentary: Farmers remain ready to aid in vaccine distribution

Issue Date: February 24, 2021
By Bryan Little
Bryan Little
A state agency revised guidelines for COVID-19 vaccine distribution earlier this month. Farmers and ranchers have volunteered to organize and publicize vaccination events in rural communities.

The distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in California has created anxiety about when and whether essential workers, including farm employees, will be able to receive the vaccine.

Reports of "line-jumping" by recipients with certain connections and public pressure to vaccinate certain groups on the basis of occupation rather than age have led farm employers, advocates and local officials in some jurisdictions to call for, and to begin to organize, efforts to vaccinate farm employees. The rapidly approaching growing season in many regions has heightened the call for vaccinations.

Vaccination administration is being managed on a county-by-county basis, based on broad priorities set by the California Department of Public Health and administered by local health departments, on the basis of conditions in individual counties, and sometimes in sub-county regions.

On Feb. 13, CDPH announced revised guidelines indicating the vaccine should be made available to about 3.1 million potential recipients, including health-care workers and long-term care residents, and an additional group of about 13 million potential recipients in food and agriculture, education and child care, emergency services and those aged 65 years or older. The department said it wants to achieve equity for disproportionately impacted communities and populations, and to make sure scarce vaccines are used.

County Farm Bureaus, agricultural employers and community service organizations have worked with county public health departments to organize vaccination clinics but have encountered vaccine availability problems. In the San Joaquin Valley, a local consortium is ready to vaccinate thousands of food and agricultural employees in coming weeks, if the state can deliver 50,000 doses of vaccine to make this possible.

Employers can encourage agricultural employees to take the vaccine and should consider making use of educational materials furnished by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help their employees have confidence the vaccines are safe and effective. Employers who might consider mandating vaccination for their employees should remember that current vaccines are offered under emergency use authorization, which could entail additional risk.

Though an employer may be able to argue that requiring all employees to be vaccinated will aid in creating the safest possible workplace, the federal civil rights watchdog Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made clear it expects employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees who have a disability or sincerely held religious belief that would prevent them from receiving the vaccine. Employers seeking to exclude non-vaccinated employees from the workplace could allow them to work from home, if doing so does not cause undue hardship to the employer—hard to imagine in most agricultural occupations—and those employees could be entitled to leaves mandated under state or federal laws or under the employer's own policies.

It is also important to remember that whether or not vaccinated, employees and their activities in the workplace remain covered under the Cal/OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards, or ETS.

Though the CDC now recommends it is not necessary for a vaccinated employee to quarantine after close contact with a COVID-19 case if they completed the two-shot course of vaccination less than three months earlier and have been asymptomatic since exposure, Cal/OSHA has so far made no adjustments to the ETS requirements governing workplace exclusion, contact tracing, testing and employer-provided housing or transportation.

If vaccination is mandated or necessary to perform job duties and an employee suffers an adverse reaction to the vaccine that results in missed work or the administration of medical treatment beyond first aid, that adverse reaction would likely be considered a recordable injury on the employer's Cal/OSHA Form 300, Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses.

There has been some concern that to simplify vaccine administration, the state might abandon its mandate to address equity as well as occupational risk. California farmers and ranchers hope the state does not adopt that course of action. They've been working hard since the beginning of the pandemic to protect their employees when they are at work, to inform them about how to protect themselves when they are not at work, and have proved ready to step into the breach, serve underserved communities and protect America's food supply.

Farmers and ranchers remain ready to do the hard work of figuring out how to publicize vaccine availability to their communities and to organize more vaccination events. The only missing puzzle piece is enough vaccine doses for America's hardest-working population of essential workers.

(Bryan Little is director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service.)

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




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