As Yakima County health officials identified 70 farm and fruit-packing workers who have tested positive for COVID-19, new state safety guidelines got sharply different reactions from grower and worker advocates.
Before the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) released final guidelines Thursday, two farmworker unions filed a lawsuit in Skagit County Superior Court, calling draft versions “garbled” and “non-mandatory.” The suit, which has a hearing set for May 1, seeks stronger emergency rules.
Grower groups, in contrast, said they found the guidelines challenging but reasonable. Despite considerable costs to comply, the industry would do its best to protect workers, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. “No farm or processing facility could easily survive an outbreak,” he added.
Novel coronavirus outbreaks are already occurring in an industry that has kept busy keeping shelves stocked with food but has unevenly adopted social distancing and other protective measures. One Yakima Valley farmworker told The Seattle Times her employer was not supplying soap or, until recently, water for hand-washing.
In addition to the 70 cases in Yakima County, revealed in a news release Friday, a Grant County health official said this month several cases among farmworkers there are being investigated.
“We recognize that all of our critical infrastructure workers are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection, and that the agriculture industry in particular is vulnerable due to the inability to ‘stay home,’ ” Andre Fresco, Yakima Health District executive director, said in the Friday release.
As expected, the state issued a mix of mandates and suggestions. Two fact sheets, one on agriculture in general and one specific to food-processing warehouses, require social distancing but offer leeway. Workers must keep 6 feet apart “when at all possible.” When not, the state requires other prevention measures such as erecting physical barriers between workers, using negative-pressure ventilation systems and supplying masks.
Exactly how employers keep workers apart is up to them. The state’s suggestions include vacating every other work station on warehouse production lines — considered particularly challenging for social distancing because stations are often less than 6 feet apart — and slowing down production lines.
L&I also calls for hand-washing stations in the fields with “at least tepid water,” soap and towels; establishing a schedule for increased cleaning and sanitizing; and ensuring sick workers stay home or remain isolated.
A third fact sheet on housing for farmworkers is yet to come. It will be especially important given the thousands of temporary foreign workers expected by summer and close quarters at housing camps, which often use bunk beds and shared kitchens and bathrooms.
Draft guidance says a 6-foot separation must be maintained for recreation, cooking and sleeping. Gempler said the state rejected a proposal for placing barriers around the sides of bunk beds so they could still be used.
“My intent of submitting that plan was to open up discussions,” he said in an email, adding he was hopeful the state would approve a revised design.
Grower and farmworker advocates have been talking about draft guidelines in weekly teleconferences with state agencies. But the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Familias Unidas por La Justicia, both participating in those discussions, last week turned to the courts in what they said was frustration.
The fact sheets lack “enforceable standards,” their complaint said, and so are “wasting precious time while increasing numbers of farmworkers labor and live in conditions that imperil their lives.”
Speaking by phone, Erik Nicholson, a UFW national vice president based in the Tri-Cities, said the guidelines give growers an easy out from the 6-foot rule. “All they have to do when inspector comes by is say it’s not possible.”
While alternatives are required, he said two of the three suggested, physical barriers and negative-pressure ventilation systems, don’t apply to orchards. And he said other requirements, like creating an isolation plan, are not specific. “I can say my plan is to isolate workers in a car.”
The state is working with counties to create isolation centers, though it could also require employers to designate space in housing camps.
It has limited staff, however, to investigate complaints about noncompliance, furthering unions’ worries that the guidelines won’t change much.
Gempler and Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, took issue with the unions’ characterization of the guidelines and said they include firm rules. Gempler said they will mean some farms and warehouses “will have to make substantial physical and structural changes.”
At the same time, DeVaney praised the state’s flexibility. “The agency is actually recognizing that there can be multiple means of addressing the problem,” he said.