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State Ag. Department lays out updated guidelines to protect farm laborers

Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry is being asked to abide by new state regulations to accommodate seasonal farm workers, including those with guest H-2A status, during the coronavirus pandemic.

The commonwealth is home to more than 360 permitted farm labor camps, totaling nearly 4,300 workers, according to the state Department of Agriculture. They are primarily migrant workers, sourced by individual private companies, or they have H-2A status and are federally sourced.

Guidelines announced this week for the agriculture sector are in addition to April 15 orders from state Health Secretary Rachel Levine, ordering protections for critical workers who are employed at businesses authorized to maintain in-person operations during the coronavirus disaster emergency. Levine ordered businesses to conduct routine cleaning and sanitizing as well as protocols for when a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19.

“We will have our food safety inspectors in the fields monitoring the guidance document and certainly making sure these employers in the agriculture community adhere to what the governor and Dr. Levine have laid out,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said at a virtual press call Tuesday.

Updated guidelines specifically for the state’s agricultural sector released on Monday require any owner or operator of a seasonal farm labor camp permit in the commonwealth to use enhancements to living quarters that minimize the risk and potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Housing facilities must have six feet of distance between beds, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and beds are required to position workers head to toe to limit exposure to respiratory droplets.

Adequate ventilation is required in habitable rooms, the guidance stipulates. That means 45% of the window area is required to be openable or a device must be installed to supply ventilation.

For workers who manifest COVID-19 symptoms — fever, cough or shortness of breath — farm employers are directed to have a plan in place for isolated housing accommodations, with separate sleeping, cooking and bathing facilities.

Transportation requirements are also in place for workers to maintain social distancing and safety as they travel to their worksite, purchase essential supplies and have access to toilet facilities. Farm employers are ordered to limit the number of workers transported at one time and maintain six feet of physical separation and install ventilation systems in vehicles.

“These guidelines are in addition to [health department guidelines], admittedly not enforced, but a clear expectation that just as we have made the case that agriculture is critical and life-sustaining, the only way that that is allowed to happen is to ensure that we protect these workers,” Redding said. “We would have the expectation that [employers] would do everything they can to implement this guidance.”

Justin Henry is the regional reporter for the Central Penn Business Journal and the Lehigh Valley Business. He can be reached at jhenry@bridgetowermedia.com.

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