States Seek to Protect the Workers Who Feed America

August 19, 2020|6:26 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Responsible for planting, growing, harvesting, processing, and preparing the food we eat, agricultural workers are essential workers during the COVID-19 response to keep the U.S. food supply chain operating efficiently. But farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to lack of physical distancing, lack of access to health insurance and sick leave, and poor access to clean water for handwashing throughout the work day.

Working conditions in food processing plants and on farms often make it difficult to maintain proper social distancing and sanitation standards, which increases the risk of exposure to COVID-19. For example, workers often have close, prolonged contact with one another, they may be exposed through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects such as tools, tractors, or workstations, and may utilize shared or public transportation.

CDC recommendations for farm owners and operators and meat and poultry facility employers:

  • Developing a COVID-19 assessment and control plan and designating a qualified workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 assessment and control planning.
  • Establishing uniform policies and procedures for screening workers in consultation with state and local health officials and occupational medicine professionals.
  • As part of hazard assessments, owners and operators should consider whether personal protective equipment (PPE) is necessary to protect workers.
  • A review of sick leave policies should be considered to protect the health of owners, operators, workers, and their families.

As outbreaks at farms and in food processing plants increase, it is critical that states ensure the health and safety of the frontline staff working to provide food for the country. Recent state policies have sought to protect the health of these vital workers and maintain food safety standards by:

  • Requiring testing for employees.
  • Improving living conditions for migrant workers.
  • Providing benefits such as workers’ compensation and paid leave.

Below is an overview of executive and legislative activity to address the health and safety of food and agricultural workers.

Executive Action
In August, the Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an emergency order requiring COVID-19 testing for agricultural and food processing employees. The order builds on executive orders from Michigan’s governor requiring workplace safety measures in meat and poultry processing plants and safe housing for migrant workers. Specifically, the emergency order requires employers of migrant and seasonal works, meat, poultry, and egg processing facilities and greenhouses with over 20 employees on-site at a time to provide the following testing services: one time baseline testing of all workers; testing of all new workers prior to any in-person work; and testing of any worker with symptoms or exposure.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources issued guidance for testing availability for farms, agricultural businesses, processors, and individuals involved in the state’s food supply chain. The guidance was issued after Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order, which included the food and agriculture sectors in the list of businesses that provide essential services.

Legislative Action
The New Jersey legislature introduced several bills addressing the health and safety of farmworkers.

  • A 4505 would appropriate $5 million in federal funds to the Department of Health for grants to farmers for purchase of personal protective equipment.
  • S 2596 would go further by allowing for the Commissioner of Health to provide grants for the purchase or reimbursement of items that would improve the health and safety of farm workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, including improvements to housing and workstations. In addition, the Commissioner could authorize stipends to farmworkers who get tested for the COVID-19 virus, test positive, and are subject to a period of mandatory quarantine but do not qualify for paid sick leave or unemployment insurance.
  • A 4400 would require the Commissioner to designate farm workers as being among the groups with the highest priority for testing for communicable disease during an emergency, authorize or contract with entities to conduct the testing of every farm worker, and make the results available to the public except as prohibited by law. The Commissioner would also be authorized to conduct or require that local boards of health conduct inspections of each farm worksite to determine whether the farm employers are meeting all standards and guidelines issued by the Commissioner during the public health emergency.

The California legislature is considering a bill that would require the Division of Occupational Safety and Health to disseminate information and guidance on best practices for COVID-19 prevention in English and Spanish and conduct statewide outreach campaigns targeted at agricultural employees. The bill would also require the Division to compile and report information on any investigation relating to a COVID-19 illness or injury at a workplace of agricultural employees. The information should include the number of investigations in each county as well as the Division’s response, such as an onsite or virtual inspection of a facility.

In Pennsylvania, a proposed bill would require the Departments of Agriculture and Health develop guidelines with recommendations for food establishments—rooms, buildings, or places used or operated for the purpose of commercially storing, packaging, slaughtering, processing, or otherwise preparing, transporting, or handling food. The guidelines would recommend that owners of food establishments take the following actions to promote social distancing, cleaning and personal hygiene, and the provision of unemployment compensation and health insurance. In addition, the guidelines would recommend suspending attendance policies and establishing processes for infected food employees.

An Ohio bill would make COVID-19 contracted by an employee of a food processing establishment during the declared emergency an occupational disease under the Workers’ Compensation Law.

State health agencies have an opportunity for cross-sector collaboration with agricultural and occupational health and safety agency to ensure that food and agricultural workers have access to testing and treatment for COVID-19. It is critical for the safety of consumers and the security of the food supply chain that policies to increase funding for and availability of testing, PPE, and education on effective preventative measures for these workers. ASTHO will continue to track executive and legislative activity on this important public health issue.


Leah Silva, JD, is the director of state health policy at ASTHO