Adding more regulations further burdens Washington farmers

This image is currently not available
A farmworker is handed an N95 mask to help with poor air quality caused by wildfires at an apple orchard in Sunnyside Aug. 12, 2021. (Jordan Gale / The New York Times, File)

There is an old humorous saying that goes something like, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The expression certainly still applies to urban policymakers and commentators who seek to set agricultural policy in Washington state.

The hard work of approximately 164,000 men and women in our agricultural industries produces more than 300 agricultural commodities. Our state’s agricultural industry ranks among the state’s top three economic engines. Yet understanding of the industry remains limited. Our increasingly urban-centered political leadership (as well as most of our urban and suburban population) has little firsthand exposure to the life and challenges of farmers, ranchers and orchardists or their employees.

So, when some group comes along and tells them what “ain’t so” and they believe it, it’s easy to see how it could happen.

For example, when the summer heat wave engulfed Washington, the United Farm Workers put out a news release warning, “Washington state farmworkers do not have the right to shade and breaks during extreme temperatures as well as in-place emergency plans and training.” Some people took this at face value.

That claim is simply false. Heat rules in Washington state are very clear and apply not just to farmworkers but to anyone employed in a job that includes outdoor hours. Anyone working outdoors from May 1 to Sept. 30 must be provided work breaks if they are working for more than one hour and the temperature exceeds 89 degrees. Moreover, if employees are wearing additional layers of clothing, the temperature triggers fall dramatically — double-layer clothing has a trigger point of 77 degrees and non-breathable personal protection equipment (PPE) includes a trigger temperature of 52 degrees.

When temperature triggers are reached, employers must encourage employees to drink more water or other hydrating beverages, ensure quality drinking water is available and ensure employees have the opportunity to drink at least one quart of water per hour during each shift. Additionally, state rules require employers to teach and train all employees about the risks and proper response to heat-related illnesses. Employers are also encouraged to provide means of cooling like shade or air conditioning where possible.

That’s why many agricultural employers staggered shifts to avoid the heat of the day with schedules beginning at 4 a.m. and ending at noon to ensure both the income and safety of farmworkers. In other instances where work could be avoided for the day, employees were urged to stay home to avoid the most dangerous days. It was common practice for employers to go beyond state mandates to keep workers safe.

With Washington’s safety record and strong relationship between workers and farmers, additional regulation is likely to do more harm than good. Rather than protecting farmworkers, new regulations make it hard for farmers to compete in world markets, cutting worker hours and their take-home pay to keep prices affordable.

Do some agricultural policies, whether related to the emergency heat rules or something else, need to change? Perhaps. There are always debates worth having and trade-offs worth discussing. But change to agricultural policies should come from honest debate over the actual conditions on the ground for both agricultural workers and their employers. Hysteria from a special interest group seeking leverage to gain membership dues does not aid in that task. 

If you find yourself wanting to understand farming and the workers who work with them in Washington, talk to a Washington state farmer. They’ll keep you from falling for what ain’t so.

Pam Lewison: is a fourth-generation farmer in Eastern Washington and the agricultural research director for the Washington Policy Center Initiative on Agriculture.