SALEM — A program to reimburse Oregon farms for complying with costly COVID-19 worker protections came in well under budget during the 2020 harvest season.
State lawmakers now are considering what to do with millions of dollars that are leftover.
Oregon OSHA, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, implemented emergency rules last spring to strengthen field sanitation, housing and transportation protocols at labor-intensive farms, such as fruit orchards and vineyards.
In response, Gov. Kate Brown allocated $16 million to the Food Safety and Farmworker Security Program, which provided direct payments to farmers for the expense of meeting the OSHA rule — things like buying or renting additional portable toilets, reconfiguring cabins to ensure 6 feet of social distance and arranging more buses to transport workers to the field.
As it turns out, $16 million was more than enough. Just $5.6 million was spent before the program expired Dec. 31, leaving $10.4 million remaining, according to a Jan. 5 report from the Oregon Department of Administrative Services to the Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board.
It is not precisely known what will happen to that money now. In a statement, Nikki Fisher, press secretary for Brown, said the state is discussing priorities for ongoing COVID-19 relief.
“There is a clear need to continue to work to protect migrant and seasonal farmworkers during the COVID-19 crisis,” Fisher said. “And we know that there are growers who are doing the best they can to mitigate the spread.”
The Food Security and Farmworker Safety Program was intended to help Oregon secure its food supply chains while minimizing health risks for frontline workers, Fisher said. It was administered by the state Watershed Enhancement Board, in collaboration with the state’s Department of Agriculture, Health Authority and Housing and Community Services Department.
Meta Loftsgaarden, OWEB executive director, said 228 farms participated in the program, estimating at least 21,000 farmworkers benefited from enhanced safety measures.
Initially, the program had strict caps in place to ensure there would be enough funding left for late-season crops. Once it became clear that would not be an issue, Loftsgaarden said those caps were lifted and the program was expanded to cover the cost of face masks and other personal protective equipment.
Approximately $1.85 million was authorized in direct payments for farms. ODA and Oregon State University also partnered to distribute 3 million free KN95 masks for agricultural employers with support from the program.
Despite coming in well under budget, Loftsgaarden said she is confident the program was marketed aggressively for producers to take advantage.
“We never in this state, or in this country, have run a program like this,” she said. “None of us knew up front what the ultimate cost was going to be.”
OWEB funded 305 total projects through the program. The vast majority, 74%, were for field sanitation, as farmers had to roughly double the number of portable toilets and hand-washing stations available to workers.
Some 14% of the applications were for housing modifications to ensure workers’ beds would be 6 feet apart, or separated by an impermeable barrier such as Plexiglass. The remaining 12% was for providing additional transportation, since workers had to be spaced 3 feet apart inside vehicles.
Hood River and Marion counties accounted for nearly one-third of the applications awarded. The crops that were covered represent a vast swath of Oregon agriculture, including pears, cherries, winegrapes, hazelnuts, sweet potatoes, onions, corn, nursery stock, Christmas trees and hemp.
“We feel pretty confident, reaching out through (the media) and agricultural organizations, that we got to the folks who needed the program,” Loftsgaarden said.
Jonathan Sandau, special assistant to ODA Director Alexis Taylor, said nobody was turned away from the program.
“We were prepared, hopefully, for whatever came at us,” Sandau said. “I think we were able to provide complete assistance.”