Apr 21, 2021
‘Common sense ruling’ goes in favor of Washington farm labor managers

Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson ruled in favor of agriculture groups, prohibiting the state of Washington from enforcing unreasonable emergency COVID-19 regulations farm leaders say don’t incorporate best science, the arrival of vaccines, and are pushing farmers out of business.

On Feb. 3, 2021, the Washington Farm Bureau and wafla, a non-profit association specializing in agricultural labor issues, filed suit against the state over infeasible and misguided emergency COVID-19 regulations that have been automatically rolled over every 120 days for the past year. The state has been unwilling to make adjustments to the regulations even after farm workers have been vaccinated to help put farmers on a path to economic recovery. The fourth renewal of these rules is scheduled to be filed on May 9.

“After a year of asking the state to work with the farm community to make science-based adjustments to the COVID-19 emergency regulations, we’re very pleased with this common sense ruling,” said John Stuhlmiller, chief executive officer of Washington Farm Bureau. “However, it’s disappointing we had to take this step when the state has been willing to work collaboratively with other industries.”

Judge Gibson’s stay prohibits enforcement of the following regulations:

– Requiring twice-daily medical visits to isolated farm workers with COVID-19 or symptoms.

– Requiring 20-minute access to emergency services.

– Requiring one-hour access to an emergency room with a ventilator is largely impossible to meet in many rural and geographically isolated areas.

– Open access to farms by undefined community workers. (Farmers argued this was vague and risked spreading COVID-19 in areas that are largely isolated and counter to established medical guidance. Last year elected officials, labor organizers and others visited farms, risking farm worker safety.)

Farmers faced steep fines for not meeting these requirements.

In the coming months, more than 20,000 guest workers will arrive due to a chronic labor shortage and then return to their home countries as part of the annual H2-A guest worker program. Thanks to a collaboration between farm groups and a non-profit agency, Medical Teams International, all workers are immediately tested on arrival and quarantined with full salary guarantee if they have Covid symptoms. Farmers pay prevailing wages and provide licensed and inspected housing, transportation and personal protective equipment for these vital workers.

All workers are tested upon arrival and there has not been a positive test result since February. Workers are then immediately scheduled for vaccination. The farm groups have called on the state to support their efforts to keep workers quarantined on farms until they are vaccinated to limit possible community spread, and ease regulations after 100 percent of the workers are vaccinated.  Thus far the state has not agreed to consider these steps. The rules only permit 50 percent capacity in housing facilities.

In their briefing filed to the court the state conceded they need to make changes to the rules based on the concerns raised in the lawsuit.

“Farmers cannot stay in business if they can only employ and house half their workforce even after they are vaccinated,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of wafla. “We’ve watched as the state has worked with other industries to make needed adjustments and it’s really unfortunate we had to take this action to be treated the same.”

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