In summary

Santa Barbara County adopts new rules aimed at preventing COVID-19 outbreaks among H-2A farmworkers. The move comes amid reports of outbreaks, including a monthlong investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian that uncovered outbreaks that sickened more than 350.

Starting this week, Santa Barbara County has adopted new rules aimed at preventing explosive COVID-19 outbreaks among farmworkers brought on a special visa from other countries to harvest produce in the U.S. 

The move comes amid statewide reports of large-scale outbreaks in the crowded motel rooms, apartments and labor camps where H-2A visa guest workers live, including a monthlong investigation by CalMatters and The Salinas Californian that uncovered reports of six outbreaks at seven companies that employ guest workers in four counties across the state, sickening more than 350. 

The public health order, which was announced last Friday and went into effect Monday evening, requires agricultural guest workers to be screened daily for coronavirus symptoms and isolated immediately if they exhibit symptoms, and that the housing operator notify the county as soon as a positive case is detected — or face a $1,000 penalty. The rule applies to homeless shelters as well. 

“These health officer orders ensures that the measures outlined can be applied uniformly,” said Santa Barbara Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso in a statement, adding that early notification “will allow our disease containment team to mitigate the spread of COVID 19.” 

The order also “strongly recommends” that residents of H-2A housing and homeless shelters be separated into stable groups of no more than 14 people who do all of their activities together — such as transportation, meals, work, and personal shopping — to prevent mixing of too many people.

But the order doesn’t mandate smaller groupings.

Do-Reynoso told CalMatters and the Salinas Californian in mid-July that she planned to make the stable group policy as well as the state’s workplace guidelines enforceable within the county’s borders. When asked why those pieces didn’t make it into the final rule, Do-Reynoso declined to answer, but said the orders had taken time to finalize because “we were intentional to work with stakeholders to produce an order that is actionable and effective.”

Santa Barbara’s new rules appear to represent the first attempt by a California county to enforce COVID precautions for temporary guest farmworkers. Labor contractors and farmers are certified to bring more than 21,300 guest workers to California this year, including more than 2,500 in Santa Barbara County, where the strawberry harvest brought in $571 million last year.

H-2A workers are uniquely vulnerable to the virus because they live in close quarters — five to a room on average, according to an analysis of mandated employer filings to the U.S. Department of Labor. Plus, they usually depend on their employer for legal entry, wages, housing, transportation and food. That dependence can make it especially challenging for guest workers to speak out against unsafe working and housing conditions.

“When you have a crowded living condition, when you have a population that perhaps may not have access to health care services, preventive services, social supports, when you have a population that may be socially isolated,” Do-Reynoso said in July, “all that makes a perfect storm during a pandemic.”

Coronavirus outbreaks in the county have now ensnared 33 employees of labor contractor Rancho Nuevo Harvesting in H-2A housing and 104 employees of H-2A employer Alco Harvesting, including one death of a domestic worker, according to the county health department. Alco Harvesting did not alert the county to the ongoing outbreak or the death of one of its workers, and workers alleged that some guest workers who tested positive but didn’t show symptoms were told to continue working alongside other employees, according to reporting by the CalMatters and The Salinas Californian.

For the first six months of the pandemic, there was no statewide standard for when employers must notify their own workers, county public health officials, or the public of a workplace outbreak. This has resulted in an alarmingly wide variation in how counties handle workplace outbreak, with some officials erring on the side of transparency, while others refuse to disclose outbreaks in order to preserve cooperation from employers who aren’t legally obligated to report outbreaks.

Los Angeles County has gone the farthest in making sure the public knows about workplace outbreaks. The county fines workplaces that don’t notify the county of an outbreak and publishes all known outbreaks online.

There are signs of a response from Sacramento.

On Thursday Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a “Right to Know” bill, AB 685, by Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino, that requires California employers to notify their employees of COVID-19 cases, as well as alert county public health departments.

“While many of us are working remotely, many workers did not have the option and had to show up for work each day in spite of the danger,” said Gómez Reyes. “The population of essential workers that are most at risk for exposure to COVID 19 are those that can least afford to get sick.”

Before signing the bill, Newsom said it does justice “to our collective cause” of prioritizing “our workforce, our workers, our front line essential workforce that we pay a lot of lip service to but often we don’t back up.”

The governor also signed SB 1159 by San Mateo Democratic Sen. Jerry Hill that makes it easier for workers who contract COVID-19 while working to be covered under the state’s workers’ compensation program to cover medical bills and lost wages.

Other farmworker protection bills on the governor’s desk:

  • AB 2043 from Assemblymember Robert Rivas, a Salinas Democrat, would require Cal/OSHA to routinely publicize findings from investigations into agricultural employers’ COVID responses.
  • SB 1102, by Senator Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel, would require that H-2A employers give all of their guest workers written notice on their labor rights under federal and state law, such as extra paid sick leave during coronavirus, and notify them of local or statewide declarations of emergency or disaster, like the pandemic.

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Jackie covers income inequity and economic survival for the The California Divide collaboration. She has reported for the Data and Enterprise desk for Reuters News and for her hometown paper, The Santa...