Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday announced new requirements to help protect farm and fruit- and vegetable-processing workers in an agriculture industry that has emerged as a focal point of concern in the spread of the novel coronavirus in Washington.
Earlier this month, outbreaks of COVID-19, the illness the coronavirus causes, prompted some workers in Yakima fruit warehouses to walk off the job to press for hazard pay and more safety assurances. Inslee cited their protests as he rolled out new measures that require employers to provide masks and other protective equipment to employees at no cost to them and to place more hand-washing stations at closer intervals in fields and orchards. The new requirements also call for workers to be spaced out in vans and shuttles carrying them to job sites.
“The striking workers in Yakima, on the lines as we speak, are clear in their calls that more needs to be done. We hear that message. And that’s why we are acting today,” Inslee said.
The new measures, which will take effect June 3, are being released as Washington agriculture is poised to launch into the cherry harvest season. The labor-intensive crop employs thousands of workers, some of whom live in the region, and some who are recruited under a temporary visa program from Mexico and other countries and stay in camps during the harvest.
Many of the cherries will be picked in Yakima County, a hub of the fruit industry that has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus cases of any county in the West and — as of earlier this month — nearly 500 cases involving agricultural and food-processing workers. Last week a state health task force made a number of site visits in Yakima, including to some fruit-packing operations where workers labor for hours on end inside big, warehouselike buildings.
State Secretary of Health John Wiesman on Tuesday told reporters that food-processing operations “are really where we are seeing our hot spots at the moment.”
News of the regulations come as Washington confirmed 358 new cases across the state Thursday, as well as 11 additional deaths. The update brings the state’s totals to 20,764 cases and 1,106 deaths, according to the Department of Health (DOH).
Other counties with recent outbreaks in food-processing operations include Clark County, where Firestone Pacific Foods had 74 of 169 workers test positive. In Chelan County, Stemilt Growers had 25 out of 60 workers at a specialty fruit-packing line test positive in Wenatchee.
Many of the new requirements build upon — and give more regulatory clarity to — earlier protective measures called for by the state Department of Labor and Industries.
But they do not change a contested early regulation that allows bunk beds in the camps so long as they are used by no more than 15 employees who work and live together and are spaced 6 feet apart or separated by barriers. They do, however offer more detail about how the shelter groups must stay isolated from other groups or individuals.
Farmworker advocates have said the use of bunk beds would put people at risk and should be prohibited.
Growers lobbied heavily for the continued use of bunk beds, saying they were essential to provide enough lodging for incoming workers. On Thursday, an industry group leader said there had been regular communication with the governor’s staff and department officials developing the new rules but he had not had a chance to review them.
Jon DeVaney, of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said “our biggest challenges have been inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment,” a problem that Inslee said the state was trying to address through the distribution of state-provided masks.
On Thursday, farmworker groups had different reactions to Inslee’s new rules.
Erik Nicholson, a representative of United Farm Workers, spoke at the news conference organized by Inslee and praised the new regulations.
” These regulations go a long way in addressing many of the issues that farmworkers have consistently raised with us, and for that we are deeply grateful,” Nicholson said.
Another union, Familias Unidas por La Justicia, said that there had been progress but that deep concerns remain, according to a statement released by Charlie McAteer, communications director for Columbia Legal Services. Columbia represents the group in a court challenge filed earlier this spring to state coronavirus-related regulation of agriculture. In a letter last week to Inslee, Columbia Legal Service attorney Andrea Schmitt wrote that parts of the housing rule were not based on the best available science, and “in particular we object to the fact that farmworkers can be forced to sleep in bunk beds” despite the increased risk of infection.
CORRECTION: Jon DeVaney’s last name was misspelled in an early version of this story.