Unions representing U.S. farmworkers, many of whom are immigrants and guest workers, escalated their push for safer working conditions during the pandemic with a lawsuit against Washington state.
The United Farm Workers and Familias Unidas por la Justicia accused regulators of failing to do enough to protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus contagion.
The complaint alleges that the state’s departments of Health and of Labor and Industries “have produced garbled, non-mandatory ‘Fact Sheets’ that have both grower and farmworker advocates confused, stuck in neutral and wasting precious time while increasing numbers of farmworkers labor and live in conditions that imperil their lives.”
The suit, filed Thursday morning in Skagit County Superior Court, seeks an injunction requiring the agencies to expedite and toughen their oversight through emergency rulemaking.
“We are aware of this issue and the office has been working with stakeholders on it before the suit was filed,” Gov. Jay Inslee’s press secretary, Mike Faulk, said in an email. “Our efforts continue.”
Food producers from farms to processing plants are grappling with the need to keep people fed while safeguarding their workers. They also have to comply with broader containment efforts such as travel restrictions that squeeze the supply of migrant workers they count on. Washington is the top apple-producing state and a major supplier of staples including wheat, potatoes and dairy.
Advocates say agricultural employees are at particular risk during the pandemic because many stay in overcrowded temporary housing facilities and often don’t have access to adequate hand-washing facilities.
“Lack of enforceable rules regarding social distancing, protective face masks, access to soap and water, and to environmental cleaning allows conditions to continue in which virus can spread easily and quickly,” according to the complaint.
Washington’s health department faced criticism for issuing guidance last month that temporary worker housing facilities with a single room “should assign sick occupants to one side and occupants without symptoms to the opposite side.” The new lawsuit calls that guidance “egregiously dangerous” to farmworkers.