Inslee to revise COVID-19 rules for farms

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee plans to amend COVID-19 safety rules for agriculture next week, according to his spokeswoman.

The governor’s office has been looking at proposals by the Washington Farm Bureau on modifying the regulations, the spokeswoman said Thursday.

“We do plan to make additional updates next week, although not necessarily all those recommended by the Bureau,” she said in an email.

The governor has ordered farms to enforce social distancing, mask wearing and frequent hand washing among their employees. The governor’s office issued the rules a month ago, saying they could be modified as the season goes on.

Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Breanne Elsey said the organization has followed up with messages to the governor.

“We feel like we’ve been very communicative with the governor’s office about what works and doesn’t work,” she said. “We aren’t just taking issue with every single thing they’ve mandated. We have been very specific and targeted.”

The Farm Bureau’s concerns include rules regarding transporting workers, mandatory masks and hand-washing stations, and holding farms responsible for employees who stray from the regulations.

The rules require farmworkers in buses to be spaced apart, with one worker per seat and the seat across the aisle unoccupied. In contrast, school buses in the fall can be at full capacity, according to state guidelines.

Elsey said farms are being forced to pick up extra transportation costs that the state will avoid. “It’s mind-boggling for everybody in the agricultural industry,” she said. “Where is the science to back up that it’s OK for school children, but not for farmworkers?”

The rules mandate that farmworkers wear cloth face coverings, unless working alone. Masks on hot days are neither feasible nor healthy, according to the Farm Bureau.

In a court declaration, Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller said farms are reporting that “some employees are experiencing headaches and carbon dioxide buildup from lack of oxygen to face coverings.”

The declaration was filed in Thurston County Superior Court to support a lawsuit by the Building Industry Association of Washington. The suit challenges Labor and Industries’ authority to fine businesses up to $10,000 for violating the governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.

The Farm Bureau also seeks clarification on how far a worker must be from others to be considered “alone.”

Before COVID-19, state law required hand-washing stations within 440 yards of workers. The virus-safety rules require hand-washing stations within 110 yards.

The Farm Bureau says the shorter distance has no scientific basis. Portable soap-dispensing, hand-washing stations in fields could run afoul of organic and food-safety standards, according to the Farm Bureau.

Hand sanitizer should be an adequate substitute for soap and water, the Farm Bureau proposes.

Under the rules, farmers must make sure sick workers stay home and are isolated. Employees in farm housing must limit after-work mingling, and workers must carpool with only household members. Growers are being held responsible for what employees do off the job, according to the Farm Bureau.

“It is not appropriate (or likely legal) for an employer to mandate what employees do in their personal vehicle, or their time off or in their private residence,” according to a Farm Bureau email to the governor’s office.

Posted By: Capital Press

Posted On: July 3, 2020