You have permission to edit this article.

State inspectors visit ag workplaces to help employers protect laborers from COVID-19

A multiagency enforcement initiative announced last week by Gov. Gavin Newsom has dispatched Cal/OSHA inspectors across the state to help employers including local farming companies comply with COVID-19 health and safety precautions.

Although the effort involves surprise "compliance visits," a spokesman for California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health said Wednesday it's not related to an investigation the state Attorney General's Office launched recently to determine whether ag companies are doing enough to protect their workers from the spread of the disease.

The visits are of particular significance to the Central Valley, the heart of California agriculture, where the coronavirus has had a big impact on some farming companies and their workforce, including in Kern.

At least three local ag processing plants have been hit with COVID-19 infections. One of them, the Primex Farms nut plant in Wasco, has reported dozens of cases.

The Kern County Farm Bureau gave its members notice Monday of the visits, noting Cal/OSHA views the disease as a workplace hazard that employers must address in a systematic way.

Ag employers are not the only ones being targeted. When Newsom announced the initiative July 1, he said it would involve Cal/OSHA, the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the California Department of Public Health, the Department of Consumer Affairs, and the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.

Cal/OSHA said inspectors have visited some 2,800 work sites across California and contacted an additional 441,755 California businesses, mostly by email. It emphasized the visits aren't classified as inspections and that agency inspectors are working with employers to "correct deficiencies on site."

"Cal/OSHA is looking into employers’ infection prevention procedures to ensure that workers are protected from the spread of COVID-19," spokesman Frank Polizzi wrote in an email.

"Employers must address the disease as a workplace hazard which means steps should be taken to protect workers like modifying the workplace to allow for more distancing, requiring the use of cloth face coverings and providing supplies and time for proper hand washing and disinfection of the workplace," he continued. "Cal/OSHA has posted guidance for workers and employers in a broad range of industries to protect from the coronavirus and continues to add updates."

Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, said he was aware Cal/OSHA has been visiting farms.

He said by email both organizations have shared extensive resources with individual farmers and ranches, including webinars, recommendations and links to online information.

The federation has also paid for public service announcements on Spanish-language radio, he said, in an effort to teach ag employees how to avoid contracting COVID-19.

“In addition," he wrote, "I respond to between five and 10 calls a day from farm employers, addressing various questions related to COVID-19, above and beyond the questions I receive related to overtime, meal and rest periods, piece-rate compensation and other non-COVID-19-related compliance matters.”

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.