Late in the evening of May 28, the Oregon Health Authority announced a new state policy—that it would now disclose the names and locations of all businesses with significant workplace outbreaks of COVID-19.
The agency made the sudden change one day after it announced an outbreak of 44 cases but, in keeping with its policy at the time, did not divulge the location.
Between the two announcements, WW broke the news that the outbreak was at Townsend Farms, a 114-year-old fruit processor headquartered in Fairview. WW also revealed that Townsend had, several weeks earlier, experienced another large outbreak affecting 51 workers that had never been publicly disclosed by the state.
After WW reported both outbreaks, Gov. Kate Brown and OHA announced a reversal in policy. Moving forward, the agency would "publicly report all past and future outbreaks that involve five or more COVID-19 cases in a workplace setting, no matter where the outbreak is located." In so doing, Brown brought Oregon's policy of disclosure in line with other jurisdictions across the nation. Since April 30, for instance, Los Angeles County has identified all workplaces with five or more cases.
This reversal, in the opinion of Adriana Ryder, 47, a Gresham resident who advocates for migrant farmworkers, is a tacit admission that Oregon's prior policy hurt those most victimized by COVID-19.
Latinx workers, like the ones Ryder advocates for and Townsend Farms depends on, have disproportionately suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic: They constitute 13.3 percent of Oregon's population but 33 percent of the diagnosed cases.
Ryder says the lack of disclosure about workplace outbreaks was particularly unfair to Latinx farmworkers. "They work in places that are very susceptible to contamination, and they have to go to work even if they are sick, because many of them aren't eligible for public assistance," she says. "I would like immigrant workers to have rights like everybody else—to be treated like humans."
That's more than just an opinion—Ryder has a history with Townsend. She says she's been in touch with company workers for years.
In early May, Ryder, who works for the Latino Network but was doing advocacy on her own time, got a phone call from a young man who worked at Townsend Farms' Fairview packing plant. He said he was an undocumented immigrant who had tested positive for COVID-19 and was too sick to work.
He told Ryder that he and others who had contracted the virus were informed by their supervisors it was up to them whether they continued working. (Townsend Farms' attorney, Bill Gaar, says the company never said that.)
Ryder says she called the company on the man's behalf May 11 and was routed to someone in human resources. "I expressed concerns that they were letting people work who were sick" Ryder says. "It's bad for the workers and bad for the community."
Ryder's claims are corroborated by a reading of complaints filed with Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, obtained under a public records request.
On March 26, OSHA Oregon, which regulates workplace safety, received the first of nine complaints that Townsend Farms was not making sure workers keep at least 6 feet apart. By late April, the tenor had changed. "People are sick, working seven days a week," says an April 27 complaint. "Afraid they are going to catch virus."
"Employees tested positive for COVID-19 and are back at work four days after testing positive," a May 12 complaint says.
Townsend Farms did not return WW's phone calls but told Oregon Public Broadcasting the company disputed the OSHA complaints and any assertion the company neglected employees' welfare. Townsend told OPB it did not want workers coming in if they had the virus, and gave them two weeks' pay to stay away. Ryder says she doesn't know whether her client received such an offer.
On May 11, Ryder filed her own complaint with OSHA on behalf of the ill Townsend worker. The agency has been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has generated far more complaints in the past 10 weeks than the agency typically gets in a year. (OSHA records show that prior to COVID-19, the agency inspected Townsend Farms five times since 2015 and cited the company for applying pesticide close to workers and for a minor housing violation.)
WW subsequently reported that the Multnomah County Health Department had investigated an earlier Townsend Farms outbreak that began April 29. That outbreak infected 51 Townsend workers and exposed at least 16 other people identified through the contact tracing process.
Information about the outbreak was never shared with the public. It only came to light because it was mentioned in the OSHA complaints, which WW had obtained.
With OSHA overwhelmed and workers arriving for the summer, the secrecy about COVID-19 outbreaks only added to the public health hazard. Advocates say the lack of transparency endangered workers and put agricultural and packing plant workers in particular at risk.
"From a worker's perspective, I feel like knowledge is power," says Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, the union that represents farmworkers.
Lopez says farmworkers earn about $21,000 a year. That can disappear if workers get sick because they take a job where there's an outbreak. Workers may also be blamed or ostracized, Lopez adds, because they worked at a business where an outbreak occurred.
"If you have knowledge about what's happening, you can make a decision about where you work," Lopez says. "It's a bad situation, where workers are going to a farm and they don't know it's had an outbreak."
Ryder says the young man who called her attention to Townsend Farms has gone back to Mexico, but his is not an unusual story. "There are thousands just like him," Ryder says. "Most of the people who come here to work don't have much education. If they come here and work on a farm where there's a problem, they should be made aware of that situation."
OHA spokesman Rob Cowie says agency director Pat Allen decided to change the agency's workplace disclosure policy with Gov. Brown's "full support" and aimed to provide consistent, transparent information.
"Some counties have shared information about large COVID-19 outbreaks in work settings, while others have not," Cowie says.
As for the timing of the policy shift: "The main reason is the interplay between county reopening and sources of new infections," Cowie says. "The Townsend Farms outbreak produced a significant increase in cases compared to prior days. It was important for people to understand that this workplace outbreak was driving the increased number of cases we were seeing."