Proposed rules to protect farmworkers from coronavirus could halve harvest, jobs

SEATTLE -- To prevent the spread of coronavirus among essential farmworkers and following a lawsuit by labor advocates, Washington state proposed emergency rule changes to temporary agricultural housing. Farmers say the proposed changes could cut their workforce and harvest in half.

The legal fight is pitting farmworker unions against farmers over how to safely house essential workers in the face of the coronavirus outbreak while also protecting the nation's food supply.

Two farm worker unions, Familias Unidas por la Justicia and United Farm Workers, sued Washington state last week for failing to provide clear guidelines to protect seasonal workers from contracting the virus.

The complaint said the state's "garbled" guidelines are forcing farmworkers to live in conditions that "imperil their lives."

Washington farms rely on tens of thousands of temporary workers each season to harvest crops. Washington leads the nation in apple production and produces a large chunk of the country's berries, pears and potatoes. Seasonal workers and those on guest-worker visas rely on the farm for housing and transportation.

The state proposed draft emergency rules for temporary agricultural worker housing to address union complaints. Those rules include spacing bunks at least six feet apart, eliminating use of the top bunk of bunk beds, implementing physical shields in shared spaces and procedures for identifying and isolating sick workers.

Farmers immediately sounded the alarm, saying the restrictions would cut in half the number of farmworkers available, cutting in half the produce they could harvest.

"Fruit will be hanging on trees, food waste is going to happen," said Madison, who farms in Chelan and Douglas counties but did not want to share her full name or farm name for fear of retaliation from labor advocates. "We're going to have a hard time keeping up all of our upkeep as far as mowing and pesticides to be able to get marketable fruit to the table."

Madison said the main issue with the guidelines is eliminating use of the top bunk, which would literally eliminate half of the available housing without providing an alternative space. She said losing half of the workers would be detrimental to the food supply and tens of thousands of workers would be out of a job, many of who don't qualify for federal pandemic assistance.

Labor advocates, meanwhile, say the proposed rules don't go far enough.

"This is not a comprehensive plan to protect farmworkers, which is what we really need," said Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, in a statement. "Even if these housing rules were enough to really protect residents - and we don't think they are - workers would still be getting sick on the buses and at work. The state has to do better to protect essential farmworkers."

Madison said to protect workers against the spread of the coronavirus, her farms are sanitizing the housing spaces while the workers are in the field and making sure they have protective equipment, like gloves and masks. She also said they've provided training to workers on the virus, proper hand washing and disinfecting techniques and demonstrated social distancing.

Still, labor advocates continue to rail the lack of enforceable regulations set forth by the state to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

They say farmworkers are particularly vulnerable during the pandemic because they stay in crowded temporary housing facilities and claimed there's a lack of access to soap and water and hand-washing facilities.

Madison said at their farm, they had already stockpiled soap before the crisis to prepare for the harvest season. She said if other farmers are experiencing a shortage, it would likely be because of the national supply shortage and wondered if, as essential workers, the state Department of Health could help those in need by providing soap and protective equipment.

"It would be nice to feel support instead of just feeling like getting the finger pointed at," she said. "We want to do this in the appropriate way but we might need some assistance to get all that done."

Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday he's calling for creative solutions to bridge the gap between what advocates are calling for and what farmers say they can readily supply.

"This is a challenge because we have to do it in a matter of weeks, not years," he told Q13's Simone Del Rosario. "What I can tell you is we are trying to find the right balance of that safety and productivity. I do think there's a number of things we can do and I hope we're going to be as successful in that industry as we have been in construction," he said, referring to the day's announcement that residential construction could resume operation with strict social distancing guidelines.

Public comment on the state's proposed emergency rules is open until Monday. The governor's office said a rule rollout will happen next week.