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In February 2019, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks at a news conference in Sacramento.

The state Attorney General's Office is investigating whether California agricultural employers are doing enough to protect their workforce from the spread of COVID-19.

Letters sent two weeks ago pressing farming companies for details about their health and safety measures have come as ag processors work to contain workplace infections, including an outbreak in Wasco that's sickened at least 31 employees and led to a worker strike.

The Kern County Farm Bureau, whose president called the inquiry "a bit of a fishing expedition," advised its members June 20 to seek legal counsel before responding to the state's request, saying in an email it was "unaware of any law or regulation that would compel an answer" to the five-page questionnaire.

‘MAIN PRIORITY’

But letters citing Attorney General Xavier Becerra's authority as "the state's chief law officer" gave employers until June 22 to respond.

"In these unprecedented times, the health and safety of the agricultural workforce is a main priority and directly impacts the health of the community at large," the letters state.

A United Farm Workers union official said employers have prioritized production quotas above worker safety. He accused farming companies of downplaying illnesses and discouraging employees from getting tested for the virus.

“Most growers are still basically operating with business as usual, to be honest with you,” UFW Secretary-Treasurer Armando Elenes said.

LOCAL CASES

California's ag industry was exempted from the state's March 19 stay-at-home order because it was classified as critical infrastructure.

Since then, infections have been reported locally among workers at Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms.

Last week, Primex Farms confirmed an outbreak at its nut processing facility in Wasco. It said 31 workers at the plant were affected by COVID-19.

The Associated Press reported that Primex employees went on strike June 25, demanding the company provide free personal protective equipment. Some accused plant supervisors of keeping employees in the dark about COVID-19 infections among plant workers.

The Attorney General's Office declined to answer questions about the inquiry, saying, "To protect its integrity, we are unable to comment on a potential or ongoing investigation."

'TAKING ADVANTAGE

John Moore III, president of the Kern County Farm Bureau, said that from what he's seen, ag employers are doing everything to take care of their workers. He accused the UFW of "taking advantage of a crisis."

"Farmers and ranchers and those in the agriculture industry have taken it upon themselves," he said, "to protect themselves and their employees in the best way possible by providing PPE (personal protective equipment) … as it’s available and following the (governor's) executive order as we can.”

The letters the Attorney General's Office sent June 15 to ag organizations notes that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has published guidelines for preventing COVID-19 infection among the state's agricultural employers and workers.

The AG's office said employers must establish an illness and injury prevention program and that employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace. It said companies are required to "furnish and use safety devices and safeguards" and do what is "reasonably necessary" to protect employees' health and safety, including training.

NO RETALIATION

The letters asked employers a series of detailed questions about their operations, from the number of workers at each site to policies in place to protect against retaliation against workers who raise concerns about health and safety conditions.

It also requested information from employers about their procedures for notifying public health authorities, as well as co-workers, about COVID-19 cases among employees — and the number of workers that have tested positive for the virus.

Another letter sent June 15 on Becerra's behalf to Jamie Johansson, president of the Farm Employers Labor Service, urged the organization to direct the state's ag employers to governmental guidelines regarding the protection of workers and the public health.

COORDINATED RESPONSE

The California Farm Bureau Federation, a FELS-affiliated company also headed by Johansson, said in a June 20 email to its members that it was formulating a response to Becerra's office. It advised a coordinated response from the industry.

The federation's email said the response will highlight the "extensive communications we have undertaken to agricultural employers and the assistance we have rendered to them to protect their employees as they respond to COVID-19 while continuing to produce food" as a critical industry.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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