In summary

A bill on the governor’s desk would require employers to notify workers and county public health officials about coronavirus outbreaks. A joint investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian uncovered reports of guest worker outbreaks where neither workers nor counties were notified.

Gov. Gavin Newsom could arm California’s vast agricultural workforce and local public health officers with more information about workplace coronavirus outbreaks under a bill that’s now on his desk.

The “Right to Know” bill, AB 685, by Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino, would require California employers to notify their employees of COVID-19 cases, as well as alert county public health departments.

Companies haven’t always notified public health officials — or even their own employees — of outbreaks even as positive cases spike across poultry plants, food processing facilities and fruit and vegetable farms. And even when public health departments are made aware of outbreaks, some counties refuse to release it to the public. That’s led to the push for increased transparency — and frustration that such rules aren’t already in place amid a pandemic.

“Essential workers kept working through the pandemic expecting they would be safe in the workplace, or at least informed when their health was in danger,” said Gómez Reyes in an interview. “In every district we’re finding that there are employees that are not being notified.”

Farmworker outbreaks weren’t reported

A monthlong investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian uncovered reports of six outbreaks at seven companies that employ guest workers in four counties, sickening more than 350 workers. In many cases, both guest workers and county officials were kept in the dark. Gómez Reyes credited the story for shedding light to the severity of the problem.

“Until (investigative work is) done, everyone else is trying to piece things together, but when you have a publication like CalMatters publish something like that…now you realize it’s even bigger,” she said.

Notably, the investigation found:

  • Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said she didn’t learn of an outbreak at one employer that ensnared 91 by mid-August until the state agency charged with regulating workplace safety notified her of a man’s death. 
  • One worker caught up in the outbreak told reporters he felt abandoned and ignored in quarantine once the hotel door shut behind him. 
  • Another who worked alongside people diagnosed with COVID-19 said her coworkers were told to continue working as long as they didn’t have symptoms. She feared catching the virus herself.

The California Department of Public Health issued guidance to local health departments June 16, which included a checklist for those departments assisting workplaces experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19. The guidance recommended that an employer “notify all employees who were potentially exposed to individuals with COVID-19.” 

Despite this, a number of businesses throughout California have experienced serious outbreaks of COVID-19 without informing local public health departments quickly. This includes poultry processing plant Foster Farms, where eight workers died and nearly 400 of the plant’s employees tested positive for the virus.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the bill. 

‘Inconvenient for an employer’

As the bill was heard in committee, Assembleymember Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat who chairs the California Latino Legislative Caucus, said much of the state’s nearly 14,000 deaths have fallen on Latino workers. Gonzalez also has co-authored a bill, AB 2043, directing Cal/OSHA to track and report workplace investigations in the agricultural industry.

“We cannot continue to lose lives, real lives, because it’s inconvenient for an employer,” Gonzalez said. “We as a state have been able to accept death after death in the workplace of Latino, primarily immigrant workers because we don’t know them. They’re not real to us. And this is where it stops.”

In that same hearing, Assembleymember Heath Flora, a Ripon Republican, opposed the bill and defended Foster Farms as one of the biggest and best employers in his district.

“I would just argue that this is a failure of Merced County (Public Health Officer) and their inability to get the resources our businesses need to do testing for facilities that are this large,” Flora said. “This is a huge frustration. We have no consistency at the state and local levels. We hold our business community to a standard but we don’t really take it to heart.”

Businesses pushed back on penalty

Organizations such as the Western Growers Association and the Agricultural Council of California also registered their opposition at the meeting.

Earlier versions of the “Right to Know” bill would have imposed a $10,000 fine on businesses that did not comply with the reporting mandate, but that provision was taken out before it made it to the governor’s desk. So, too, was a requirement that every positive test be reported. 

Business advocates had pushed back on those key provisions, concerned about requiring too much of employers already struggling to keep up with regulation changes and decreased clientele during a pandemic. AB 685 defines three or more sickened as an outbreak.

“In general, we want to do things that help protect the safety of employees and their welfare as long as it doesn’t put an excessive burden on employers,” said Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Farmer. He said the chamber had not taken an official position on the bill.

Gómez Reyes said there’s still enough enforcement in the bill to make a difference. 

“Even though we took out the $10,000 penalty, without a doubt, the bill still has teeth,” she said. “This is too important to go without consequences.”

Updated Sept. 14, 2020 to correct spelling of Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes.

Kate Cimini is a reporter with The Salinas Californian. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Kate Cimini is a reporter with the Salinas Californian and CalMatters' California Divide project. She covers economic inequality, agriculture, and housing. Previously, she covered national security, natural...