Rules upcoming for transporting farmworkers in Washington

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will add to instructions the Department of Labor and Industries gave farms last month on preventing and containing COVID-19 among agricultural workers. Photo Courtesy of

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will set rules for transporting farmworkers, adding to the list of requirements agriculture must follow to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Assistant Attorney General Anastasia Sandstrom said Thursday during a court hearing on a suit brought by two farmworker unions.

The Department of Labor and Industries has issued physical-distancing and hygiene standards for field work and housing, but had not committed to issuing rules for workers traveling together. Sandstrom assured Superior Court Judge Dave Needy that such separate rules are coming from the governor’s office.

Needy declined Sandstrom’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, but said he was satisfied with the state’s steps to protect farmworkers in fields and housing. “As far as I’m concerned, if the transportation issue is addressed, (we) probably don’t need to reconvene,” he said.

The United Farm Workers and Familias Unidas por la Justicia filed the suit in mid-April, seeking a court order directing L&I to write emergency safety rules for fields, housing and transportation. At a hearing two weeks ago, Needy declined to issue the order, but scheduled Thursday’s hearing for an update on the state’s efforts to protect farmworkers.

L&I issued emergency rules for housing on Wednesday. Previously, the department told farms they were required to enforce physical distancing elsewhere and take other actions to prevent or contain the virus.

Sandstrom said the governor also would add workplace guidelines for agriculture to his stay-at-home order. It was unclear whether the guidelines would confirm or vary from L&I’s requirements. Efforts to get clarification from the governor’s office and L&I were unsuccessful.

A governor’s spokeswoman said in an email the general safety rules are expected to be released next week.

“The limbo they’re putting farmers in is really destructive,” Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Breanne Elsey said. “They have to stop moving the goalposts every week.”

The housing and workplace safety rules issued by L&I already touch on transportation.

Shared work vehicles must be sanitized after each use. Farms must prohibit carpooling if the passengers can’t say 6 feet apart. Drivers taking a worker with virus symptoms to be treated must wear personal-protection equipment.

Farmworkers who are grouped in one housing unit can travel together. The workers, up to 15 in one shelter, must be separated from other employees. Occupants in segregated housing can sleep in bunk beds. L&I initially proposed a ban on bunk beds, potentially halving the capacity of farmworker housing.

The revised bund-bed rule provides farms with some flexibility, Elsey said. “It may not work for everyone, but it’s definitely better than where we were two weeks ago.”

The governor’s office has developed coronavirus-safety standards for more than a dozen other industries, such as construction, restaurants and vehicle sales as a condition of reopening. Farms have continued to operate as an essential industry.

 

Posted By: Capital Press

Posted On: May 15, 2020