Farm worker safety

Farmworkers harvest crops in February 2020 near Mount Vernon.

A farm advocacy group has raised concerns that proposed state rules to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in temporary worker housing would negatively impact farmers’ ability to harvest their crops, yet labor unions contend the state is not doing enough to protect farmworkers whose work has been deemed essential during the pandemic.

Save Family Farming, a nonprofit representing farmers throughout the state, has stated that the proposed emergency rules for temporary farmworker housing may cut in half the state’s seasonal workforce and fruit harvest.

The state drafted the rules shortly after farmworker labor groups filed a lawsuit April 16 in Skagit County Superior Court demanding the state enact stronger protections for thousands of farmworkers.

The proposed rules would require beds and cots inside temporary housing be at least 6 feet apart in all directions to maintain social distancing, and only allow use of the bottom bunk of a bunk bed, unless the housing unit is occupied by a single family.

There could be less than 6 feet between beds if there is a nonpermeable barrier, such as plexiglass or plastic sheeting, between beds, or an alternative arrangement is approved in advance, according to the rules. Temporary tents to house workers may also be allowed.

The rules also require social distancing plans for cooking, eating, bathing and washing areas, and policies to isolate sick workers.

Gerald Baron, executive director of Save Family Farming, said the rules would effectively make illegal half the beds in housing units, and that workers who travel from other states to work at area berry farms would not have a place to stay.

“The workers who are on their way up here, where are they going to go?” he said. “They are going to find the very best housing taken away from them. It doesn’t make sense to take away government-licensed and inspected housing.”

Baron said the farmers he has talked to are taking the spread of COVID-19 seriously, and have received guidance on safety measures — such as social distancing and the use of masks in the workplace — and recommendations for temporary housing.

He said he knows of one Skagit County grower who has arranged to use a local hotel as a quarantine facility for workers who get sick, and that some growers in the state have been proactively testing workers.

An outbreak could potentially be devastating for a farm.

“Nobody wants to lose their workforce,” Baron said.

The state received nearly 500 comments on the proposed rules following a comment period that ended Monday, Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee, said in an email.

“We are working with the relevant agencies to review these comments,” Faulk said. “Addressing the unique challenges of the COVID-19 safety hazard in farmworker housing is an important matter to the governor and his team, including a deep understanding of the impacts on workers, growers and communities.”

But in their April 16 lawsuit, labor groups Families Unidas Por La Justicia and the United Farm Workers of America say that the state has not done enough to protect farmworkers, and more should have been done sooner.

The lawsuit calls on the state to enact stronger and more enforceable measures, and enact even stricter rules for temporary housing, in order to protect farmworkers’ health.

Edgar Franks, political director for Families Unidas Por La Justicia, which represents 500 workers employed at Sakuma Bros. Farms near Burlington, said the concern is that workers living in close quarters in cabin-style housing will not be able to socially distance themselves from one another and protect themselves from the virus.

“The bunk beds and crowded housing is a hotbed for possible tragedy for farmworkers,” he said.

He said reports of recent outbreaks among dozens of farmworkers at a Central Washington orchard and at meat packing plants throughout the country are worrisome to workers.

Franks said housing workers in tents or separating beds with plastic sheeting would be unacceptable because of poor ventilation.

He said workers also need more information on how they will be able to cover their family’s expenses should they become sick, and how to access testing.

“All of this is because (farmworkers) have been deemed essential workers and deserve to be treated as such,” Franks said.

Skagit County Superior Court Judge Dave Needy will hear the farmworkers groups’ motion for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief Friday morning.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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