Farm worker safety

Farmworkers harvest crops in February 2020 near Mount Vernon.

Emergency rules adopted by the state Wednesday will require farms to implement physical distancing in temporary farmworker housing, increase sanitation and isolate workers who have COVID-19 or are suspected to have it.

The rules don’t go as far as farmworker unions had wanted.

Under the rules, beds in temporary housing must be spaced at least six feet apart, with occupants sleeping head to toe, or may be spaced closer if beds are separated by a floor-to-ceiling temporary nonpermeable barrier, according to a joint news release from the state departments of Health and Labor & Industries.

Farms would only be able to use the bottom bunk of a bunk bed, unless they opted for a “group shelter” option — a scenario in which a group of workers (15 or fewer) stays together and isolates from others for housing, work and transportation, the news release states.

Tim Church, spokesperson for L&I, said the idea is that a group of workers would behave like a family and distance themselves from others who might bring illness into the group.

“We took input from the farm industry and labor groups and felt that this was something to add to the rules that would allow additional workers (in housing) while still protecting workers’ safety on job,” he said.

The draft rules, which were released April 23, drew about 500 comments.

Organizations representing farmers and growers stated that the draft rules would have eliminated half the available temporary worker housing and negatively impacted tree fruit and berry harvest.

Dillon Honcoop, communications director for Save Family Farming, which advocates for farmers in Skagit and Whatcom counties, and in eastern Washington, said the final rules will mean additional costs for farmers, but are workable.

“We feel there is significant flexibility to allow farmers to protect workers and allow the harvest to go forward,” he said.

He said farms have already implemented their own safety measures.

The new rules require farms to submit a plan to the state by May 28 detailing how they will comply with the requirements.

Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por La Justicia, a union that represents farmworkers at Sakuma Bros. Farms near Burlington and advocates for workers statewide, said the union is disappointed that bunk beds and temporary barriers would be allowed because they won’t ensure adequate physical distancing.

“I think overall we’re concerned that there will be limited enforcement of housing rules,” he said.

Farmworker unions sued the state in April for stronger worker protections.

At a May 1 hearing, Skagit County Superior Court Judge Dave Needy denied the parties’ requests for injunction and dismissal. A review hearing took place Thursday.

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

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