Oregon bill would let workers refuse unsafe work

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By MALLORY GRUBEN

Hector Rojas lost his job for exercising his right to refuse unsafe work. Now, he’s asking Oregon lawmakers to pass a bill that would protect workers from similar retaliation. 

Hector Rojas (Photo courtesy PCUN)

In March, the Keizer farmworker testified in support of Senate Bill 907. The bill would make it illegal for anyone to discriminate, fire, or refuse to hire a worker who, in good faith, refused to work in hazardous conditions that would have reasonably resulted in serious injury or death. It would also prompt Oregon OSHA to adopt new rules clarifying how workers can use their right to refuse unsafe work. 

Rojas told lawmakers that he and his crew were working in grape fields when a boss sprayed unknown pesticides nearby. The workers asked to “leave early and right away” to avoid exposure to the chemicals they didn’t already know the side effects for. The farm owner gave them permission to head home, but once they left, they learned the contractor they worked for had fired them for leaving early, Rojas testified. 

Rojas tried to follow up with Oregon OSHA and Bureau of Labor and Industries, but the agencies told him there was no case because he was no longer employed.

“Workers need to be safe at work,” he testified via interpreter. “If a worker reasonably believes that a work assignment could seriously injure or kill us, we must be able to say so.” 

Federal and state law already allow workers to refuse dangerous work, but that right is difficult to use if a worker is worried about retaliation. And the existing process for refusing work is so murky even trained lawyers have a hard time figuring out how it could be used, said Kate Suisman, attorney for the Northwest Justice Workers Project. 

“If you think of it like a shield, it’s a shield that’s just so heavy and hard to access, it’s locked away and folks can’t use it,” Suisman testified. “The way it’s written now, I honestly can’t get my mind around it, and this is my profession.” 

A coalition of labor and workers rights groups — including Oregon AFL-CIO, Oregon AFSCME, and Northwest Workers Justice Project — proposed the bill this session. It was amended in late March to resolve opposition from multiple business associations, who had argued that the original language was too subjective and vague. Now, those groups support a “summer of rulemaking” that will bring Oregon’s right to refuse law in line with federal OSHA’s easier to understand counterpart. 

SB 907 passed out of the state Senate with a bipartisan 21-8 vote on April 13. Before it becomes law, it needs House approval and the governor’s signature.

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